Call Me Star Girl
Orenda Books, 18 April 2019 (PB) 18 February (e)
PB, e 277pp
I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for a free advance reader's copy of Call Me Star Girl.
You may look at the publication date and think "April? Why's he reviewing this in January? Go away, it's still Winter." Well, e-books are a thing, and you can read this on your favourite device from 18 February. In any case, I can't keep quiet about this one - I want it on your radar because it's a book you'll want to devour, the kind of book that draws you in and plays games with you and then haunts you. And you don't want to miss out on that.
There's the setting, a late night radio studio occupied by a sole presenter. Stella McKeever whispers her truths to the insomniacs, the night workers, the lovers, the ne'er do wells who come out in the dark to do whatever it is they do. And she solicits secrets in return. Outside, the police hunt down the killer who recently murdered pregnant Vicky Valbon only streets away. Inside, on the hour, Stella repeats her canned news broadcasts, marking zero progress in tracking down Vicky's killer.
There are the characters.
Stella, giving her last ever show (why?) in the small hours. She's had a difficult start in life, abandoned by her mother when she was twelve with no explanation, in a relationship with a man who pushes her boundaries, wants her to do transgressive, dangerous things - like "playing dead".
Elizabeth, Stella's mum, trying to find a place back in Stella's life and trying to be helpful to young mothers by working as a doula. (Is she trying to atone?)
Tom, that man who pushes Stella to her limits and beyond.
But most of all, there's Beech's compulsive, claustrophobic writing, piling on the pressure through the night in which Stella remembers and tells her story and voices fears between the "reheated news", texts and messages from restless callers. During this we see snatches of both her life and of Elizabeth's, then and now. It's a moving story, often dark and gradually we learn what happened. All the way through, Stella's interrupted by calls from The Man Who Knows - who won't tell us what he knows, but who may be stalking Stella. Meanwhile, doors bang in the (empty?) studio, Stella begins to hear voices from her past and present... and one of her colleagues goes missing.
I found the way the story is told through that one long night just enthralling. All the threads of Stella's life - her past, present and future - are brought together in one intense, pressure-cooker sequence as she cues songs, begs her audience for secrets to share and begins to put together the pieces from what she finds. (Awkward thing, asking for secrets: people may tell you them).
Beech used the idea of a character taking calls from strangers during the silent hours in Maria in the Moon - it's one with obvious dramatic potential - but in Call Me Star Girl she dials up the noir to 11 - the shadows in the studio, the lonely people out there hanging on to what Stella says, the noise that might be footsteps on the stairs... and she gives us Stella, the Star Girl herself, asking questions. Stella avoiding giving answers. Stella talking to us, as though we were sitting in an empty kitchen at 2.30 in the morning, any hope of sleep given up.
Or steering a taxi through the rainy streets.
Or a truck up the darkened motorway.
There's a fascination, I think, with those dark hours, with the people who are awake though them, and Beech exploits this to the full, serving up a dense, haunting, and deeply, deeply unsettling take on that In the course of doing that she will tie you in emotional knots with a story that has moments of joy, fear, pity and such intense sorrow.
Secrets will be revealed, and truths come home to rest. But is Stella ready for what she'll find?
I think this is Louise Beech's best yet - which is saying something. Come April, you need to get your hands on it!
You can preorder Call Me Star Girl from your local bookshop or online from Hive Books, Blackwells, Waterstones and Amazon as well of course as other retailers.
For more information about the book see the publisher's website here.