BOOK REVIEW: Starling Days

By Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

People said that drowning was a good death, that the tiny alveoli of the lungs filled like a thousand water balloons.”

STARLING DAYS COVERRowan Hisayon Buchnan knows the sheer unrelieved monotony of depression. She sees the way in which it saps life’s colour and drives loved ones to despair. She understands these things because she has experienced first-hand the “struggles of people very dear to [her] and [faced her own] challenges”. In her Author’s Note she says: “Not everyone who is sad is sick but I have been sick and I have loved those who were sick.”

Starling Days, which follows closely on the heels of her Betty Trask Award-winning Harmless Like You, is the complete antithesis of an uplifting novel. It is stark, joyless and authentic – it also poses difficult questions. Can love defeat misery? Should we expect those closest to us to save us from ourselves? Is it fair even to ask?

The story begins one humid night in August with Mina, a twenty-something classicist and associate professor, walking barefoot and alone across New York’s George Washington Bridge. The water below is “dark as poured tarmac” and she wonders about the people driving past in “their shadowy cars.” The lights suddenly become brighter as a police car pulls up beside her. A young officer tells her to “step away from the rail.” It doesn’t look good, “normal women, innocent women, [don’t] walk alone on bridges at night.” She may be there to jump. She insists she is merely clearing her head. Her husband Oscar is called to retrieve her. He’s been through this before – on their wedding night, only six months earlier, she had attempted to kill herself.

The narrative moves between New York and London as Oscar seeks ways to alleviate Mina’s unhappiness, but she has struggled for many years and there is no simple answer. He becomes obsessive over her whereabouts and worries when she is left alone; she comes off her medication to “learn the floor plan of [her] sadness”. Then something snaps in Oscar and, using his father as an excuse to escape the situation, he crosses the Atlantic and goes to ground, leaving his suicidal wife to cope in a cheerless apartment.

I can’t claim to have ‘enjoyed’ reading Starling Days, it is far too gloomy a book to be pleasurable in any sense of the word, but it is well written and it held my interest throughout; I’ve no doubt some readers will find it relatable. However, while this may not be Rowan Hisayon Buchnan’s magnum opus, she is quite clearly a talented writer and one feels she is on the cusp of something special. A novelist to watch.

Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing an advance review copy of this title.


I read this title for 20 Books of Summer 2019

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21 replies

  1. I thought this was such a convincing portrayal of the way in which depression affects both partners in a realationship. Heartfelt!

  2. A beautifully written review of what sounds like a wrenching book.

  3. A beautiful review indeed, Paula. 🙂 Buchnan must be a talented writer to keep you interested in this study of depression.

  4. Definitely not one to read if you’re feeling a bit down. Sounds powerful and moving though

    • Definitely not, Karen. You need to steel yourself for this one!

      • Or, maybe it would be a good thing? Sometimes it’s helpful to feel as if someone “sees” or understands your pain…you think it’s a unique struggle and, then, you have company (if only in a book)? Thoroughly enjoyed reading your review, Paula!

      • Thank you so much, Marcie. 😊 Very true, a novel such as this could well help – especially as the author of this one sends a positive message in her Author’s Note to others suffering similarly.

  5. What an intriguing review. Happiness is central to postmodern conceptions of the good life. However, for all the yoga, organic carrots, and mindfulness, most people tend to experience a diversity of moods during their complex lives. I’m so pleased that you could find positive points about the text.

    Wittgenstein once wrote:

    “Only a man who lives not in time but in the present is happy.”

    • I sometimes think pursuing happiness merely drives it further away. Like chasing a butterfly with a net, once caught it will rapidly die and crumble to dust. Far better to catch a glimpse of brightly coloured wings and experience the unexpected pleasure of it alighting on a flower. Enough of this analogy – it’s getting out of hand! 🦋

  6. Nice review, Paula 🤗 Depression has been too great a spectre in our family for me to find the wherewithal to read this one. But I admire the author for creating such a novel: it must have coloured her life while she was working on it.

    • Thank you, Sandra. 🤗 Ditto my family. I think depression is far more common than most people realise, but at least it’s discussed more openly these days. I can understand why you would rather not read this novel, it made me feel rather low at times, though, as I said in my review, it is well written. The author quite clearly understands first-hand what it’s like to suffer mental health issues.

      • Absolutely, Paula; it seems to be everywhere but much of that is because it’s more openly acknowledged and that can only be a good thing. 😊

  7. Very interesting. I’m not sure if I could read it. It sounds very dark but excellent.

  8. I don’t think I can do too gloomy at the moment, but this does sound excellent. I’ll bear it in mind for when the world seems a more positive place! (That has to happen, surely?!)


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