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.”
Rowan 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