2019 Costa Novel Award
Judges: “A beautiful and original take on mental health, told with humour and hope.”
In a recent talk, the critic and poet Anne Boyer referred to the contemporary bourgeois novel, in which characters “feel a lot but do nothing”. The wider social conditions in such fiction, for Boyer, tend to go unseen, only entering the narrative as a flourish of detail. This is certainly the case for Starling Days, which seems curiously uninterested in how the world we inhabit may be informing its characters’ depression. Though there are some nods to precariousness in academia and to past family trauma, the character’s lives are presented as flatly inevitable, divorced from their socioeconomic circumstances, and there does not seem to be anything truly at stake. It feels like quite an omission to separate serious mental illness from what produces it. Though aspects of Buchanan’s representation are admirable, the account as a whole feels rather superficial.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is the latest in this playlist. Starling Days is a bit of a curate’s egg of a novel, melding social commentary with internal dysfunction. But one of the central characters is a classicist, which provides the key to the lock of the story... This is a novel which is part comedy of manners and mostly tragedy. As one might expect, secrets are revealed and hidden. It is a strange admixture of the funny (it does involve a llama) and the profoundly serious... This is slick stuff, if on occasion a little show-offy. I could imagine how Iris Murdoch or Muriel Spark would have kept this leaner and less ostentatious in its prose... The significant thing is that this is a novel that takes depression seriously, even if the prose sometimes froths and bubbles at its own cleverness... Buchanan is a novelist of talent and grace. This may be a kind of sophomore book – as Mina would grasp, sometimes you can try too hard. Nevertheless, it has wit and charm and a moral core. What she does next will be intriguing.
For readers looking for a “relatable” tale of struggle and survival – the author includes an encouraging note at the end for those fighting their own darkness – the book offers consolation. For those wishing to derive more literary pleasures, Starling Days may disappoint.
Very occasionally, Buchanan’s observational inventiveness gets the better of her: she describes a hipster café carefully but then marginally overdoes it by comparing the size of two men’s beards to small dogs. But this really is nitpicking over writing which is startlingly original without — on the whole — drawing attention to its originality. Starling Days also offers scenes of sex between two women which don’t titillate, worryingly but importantly pointing up how rare this is.