Map of Blue Book Balloon

21 November 2020

#Review - Paris by Starlight by Robert Dinsdale

Design by Amy Musgrave

Paris by Starlight
Robert Dinsdale
Del Rey, 5 November 2020
Available as: HB, 465pp, e, audio
Source: advance e-copy, bought copy from Wallingford Bookshop
ISBN: 9781529100457

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Paris by Starlight via Netgalley to consider for review. 

In Paris by Starlight, we meet a nation of refugees, the People, whose country - never named - has been absorbed into "the Russias". It was, in olden times, a wonderful, magical country whose inhabitants lived by night, not day, under their own Seven Stars. They lived among wonderful, glowing plants - the "Flowers-by-Night" through which flitted birds called lightjars. They set sail on the Landlocked Sea, in which swam the Water Dogs - creatures with both legs and gills. And their stories were written down in a fabulous book called the Nocturne.

Those splendours are long past, but still remembered as the last of the People make their journey some three thousand miles through Europe, scaling fences, enduring prisons and detention centres, begging and stealing, to find somewhere they can make a home. 

At last, some of them come to Paris. (I think, by the way, this is a slightly alternate Paris - Dinsdale introduces it as "Paris, not so long ago" and the atmosphere had - to me - a slightly 50s vibe: no mobiles, the news is all on the radio and in the papers, no mention of Internet. But the events the book is founded on - the plight of refugees - feels very modern). 

Also in Paris, Isabelle is searching for the father who abandoned her nineteen years before. Club by club, night by night and bar by bar, she performs her music, hoping to eventually cross paths with him. But instead she runs across a girl of the People, wandering and starving, and is drawn into their covert world of loss and beauty. 

For things are changing in Paris. The presence of the People, and the stories from their Nocturne, seem to be re-creating their lost country. Water dogs flit in and out of the Seine and lightjars are seen blazing above flowers-by-night which spout among the concrete overpasses and tower blocks of northern Paris.

In the first half of the book, Dinsdale explores this glorious transformation as he establishes his group of characters. Besides Isabelle there is Levon and his family, which includes Arina, the girl she found scrounging for food in an alleyway, as well as his grandmother Maia. Levon also lost his father, Hayk, when the soldiers came and has protected his family along all the hard miles of the Trail. And there are others too whom Isabelle has connections with: Hector and his wife and young son and their circle. 

Things all seems to be going well, but the reader will suspect that trouble is ahead. Readers of Dinsdale's previous book, The Toymakers, will I think notice a similarity of themes in Paris by Starlight. In both, vagabond, outcast people from the East find their refuges in wealthy, complacent Western cities and kindle some of the magic of their homelands. In both, we see that this magic is not sufficient to ward off conflict, either within families and peoples, or between them. And in both, that conflict is destructive both of beauty and safety. In Paris, a "New Resistance" grows up, harping on a romanticised version of the Second World War and of the effort against German occupation but really a cover for thuggery and narrow-mindedness. Elements of the People respond in kind, seemingly dooming any hope of peace and acceptance, and things get very dark indeed.

It is a book I enjoyed a lot. However, I do one reservation about the central idea and about the way it is used and developed. Dinsdale's People clearly stand for the myriad refugees currently fleeing across Europe, denied shelter and safety, and the refusal of so many to accommodate these actual, real people should itself move and anger us. It shouldn't - surely it shouldn't? - be necessary to dramatise this idea by having the presence of people fleeing persecution generate a bewitching nighttime beauty and then having hoodlums trash that, and it bothers me somehow to see the crisis portrayed in that way. I'm not sure if I am right to be bothered, but this did make it hard at times for me to stay with the story, especially towards the end of the book.

That said, in Paris by Starlight Dinsdale creates a galaxy of characters (hard to avoid the stellar metaphor) who I found myself caring about a great deal. Paris by Starlight is beautifully, often movingly, written and the central love story is tender and sad, rooted in these well-drawn characters. The respective losses of their fathers have, for example, shaped both Isabelle and Levon. There's a touch of the unreliable narrator about Isabelle, for example in the way the novel gives us a certain impression of her mother as being slightly shiftless, romantic and unreliable which is then belied once she makes a (rather late) appearance in the book. That is typical of the writing here: despite the starkly contrasting positions taken up, the most arresting characters are conflicted, changeable and contradictory. I took a message from it that the way out may, perhaps, be embracing those contradictions, rather than trying to tidy them away.

It's a complex book and one that will stay with me. You really should try it and see what you think - I'm really looking forward to discussing this one!

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