Alix E Harrow
Macmillan, 31 October 2023
Available as: HB, 320pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me with an advance e-copy of Starling House via Netgalley to consider for review.
Starling House is the creepy story you were looking for - or that you should have been looking for - this Hallowe'en. But it's much much more than that. In the hardscrabble town of Eden, Kentucky, where bad luck seems more common than in the rest of the country, stands a peeling, decaying mansion surrounded by a garden run wild. Sometimes, a single lit window shows at night.
In the house lives Arthur Starling, a recluse, cloistered among vines and surrounded by stories...
Also living in Eden - a less apt name it would be hard to find - is young Opal, a woman orphaned by her mother's car accident who has devoted herself to racing her younger bother Jasper. The siblings live in a motel room - Room 12 - which her mum somehow managed to secure for them from testy landlady Bev. Everything about Opal's life seems tenuous, from her place in Eden's society (she's widely held, correctly, to be a thief) to her hold on her job, to her right to be her bother's guardian, even to her romantic relationships (dismissed as 'mutual groping'). Opal's overriding project - the one item on her list - is her quest to get Jasper out of the town, where coal dust and asthma are destroying his lungs to a place at a posh college. Jasper is bright and hardworking has been accepted (though he hasn't informed him that she applied...) but how can Opal possibly afford to pay?
Luckily, she manages to blag a job as caretaker at the Scary Old House (don't go near the scary old house, Opal!) and Arthur seems to have cash to spare. Apparently a haughty, antisocial man who gets up to who knows what in the darkness and whose parents also came to a Bad End, he and Opal seem bound to run each other up the wrong way. As they meet - and clash - we learn the origin story, or stories, (we are told several versions) for Starling House, which concern a 19th century writer, Eleanor Starling, whose husband died on her wedding day and whose dark take on the fantastic is still in print 150 years later. Distrusted in her home town, and always daggers drawn with Gravely, the local mine-owners whose fortune was built on enslavement and exploitation, Eleanor lived a lonely life in the house that she built.
It turns out that Arthur is more than just the latest of the Starlings, but that he is a Warden of sorts, fulfilling Eleanor's design but also keeping her supernatural legacy in check. What's going on under Eden is complicated, a delicate balance established by the Gravelys' cruelty and exploitation, Eleanor's determination to make her own stories, and the subsequent decades of conflict. It's a balance that is now threatened by Opal's trespassing on Starling land, for she, too, has secrets - even if she doesn't know them.
This was a powerful and effecting story. There is a strong romantic subplot, which absolutely feels right here but creates great jeopardy. Opal has poured her life and energy into protecting her brother rather than herself which has left her unknowingly vulnerable. Similarly, Arthur, driven by guilt and notions of duty, has turned inwards, determined to do what it takes to be the last Warden. Almost from the first meeting something smoulders between the two, but Harrow delicately draws out the subsequent ignition, raising questions about whether it could result in a fire that burns the town to the ground.
Something Eden does, perhaps, deserve, for all those averted eyes, that tolerance of injustice, that profiting from misery and injustice. Starling House embodies questions about history and about the ability of powerful men to bend reality, to get their way. Eden's chemical pollution - filthy air, filthy river, tainted groundwater - is accompanied by a kind of supernatural wrongness, leading to that aforementioned bad luck. It's a wrongness that has come to the attention of the power-hungry, who will do whatever they need to to grasp at and use it, even if they break Opal and Arthur in the process - another way in which they are vulnerable.
Consequences. Guilt. Original Sin - this version of Eden embodies all of them. The town is built from that sort of crooked timber of which nothing straight can be made - and everyone seems to know it's and not know it. Against this, what use can Opal's small efforts achieve?
A totally riveting read from Alix E Harrow, possibly her best book yet, you really need to read this.
For more information about Starling House, see the publisher's website here.