November 8, 2023

Review: Starling House

Starling House Starling House by Alix E. Harrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've long been a fan of Alix E. Harrow, but this book elevates her to a whole new level. It is her unique twist on a Southern gothic haunted-house ghost story. It is also, as is a running theme with her work, a treatise on the power of stories, with nested layers of stories within stories, emerging from generations in the past; and how we use our personal stories to make our own hell, which can spill out and affect everyone around us. It is about otherworldly monsters and human monsters, and how they each feed upon and arise from the other. Finally, it is about the families we find and the homes we make, and how to throw off our previous guilt and despair and live to fight another day, no matter how the world around us seeks to crush us.

And it's all wrapped up in some of the most beautiful, evocative prose you will ever have the pleasure of reading. One random example:

(describing the titular Starling House, p. 21)

The windows are filmy eyes above rotten sills. Empty nests sag from the eaves. The foundation is cracked and slanted, as if the entire thing is sliding into the open mouth of the earth. The stone walls are covered with the bare, twisting tendons of some creeping vine--honeysuckle, I figure, which is only ever a show tune away from gaining sentience and demanding to be fed. The only sign that anyone lives inside is the slow bleed of woodsmoke from a leaning chimney.

Towards the end of the book, as Opal describes how Eden has always rejected her (p. 281):

And I do know. I know what it is for your own people to turn their backs on you as easily as turning a page. I know all about cold shoulders and sideways looks, about being the only girl in sixth grade who didn't get a birthday invitation. I know the way people talk loud and slow to my brother, as if he might not speak English, the way they watch him in grocery stores even though everybody knows I'm the thief. Now I know about my mother, who was cast out for the ordinary sin of sex, and the far greater sin of refusing to be sorry about it.

Our first of two protagonists, narrating the first-person sections of the story (the other, Arthur Starling, has a third-person narrative) is Opal McCoy (although as she discovers, that isn't her real name), a white-trash daughter of the town of Eden, Kentucky. Opal's mother was killed in a car accident eleven years ago--she drove her red Corvette into the river with Opal aboard, and Opal does not remember how she got out. Ever since, she has been living on the fringe, lying, stealing and scheming to send her younger brother, Jasper, to a boarding school away from Eden. One night after work she walks home past Starling House, the hulking mansion on the edge of Eden that figures prominently in the town's history and myth. Long ago a mysterious young girl, Eleanor Starling, married into Eden's ruling coal family, the Gravelys, and all three brothers eventually died under mysterious circumstances. Eleanor built Starling House years later and wrote a children's book, The Underland, which tells a ghost story of demons in another world. And then she disappears, but the demons, called Beasts, are still there, coming out of Starling House on foggy nights. To contain them, the House draws Wardens to itself, and teaches them to fight. Arthur Starling, the other protagonist, is the current Warden, and he swears he will be the last.

That fateful night Opal is drawn to Starling House after dreaming about it for years, and even though Arthur comes to meet her at the gate and tells her to run, she returns. Arthur, burdened by years of guilt and loneliness, offers Opal the job of cleaning it, and since Opal needs more money to secure Jasper's tuition at the boarding school away from Eden, she accepts. Over the next several months she cleans Starling House from top to bottom, and slowly discovers its and Arthur's secrets. But since all of these characters' stories (and Starling House is definitely another character, sentient and quirky) interact with and feed upon one another, Opal has unwittingly been working for the man who let one of his Beasts slip past him one night....the same night Opal's mother died. Opal's and Arthur's slow-burn romance is cut short, and Arthur, driven by his guilt, will do anything to get Opal and her brother away from him and away from Eden, including granting the mineral rights to the property to the current generation of Gravelys, who want to reactivate the coal mines.

The climax ramps up to the ghostly demons being set free, and both Arthur and Opal descending into the Underland to stop them. There the final story of Eleanor Starling is revealed, along with the true origin of the Underland. Opal takes the Underland as her own and puts Eleanor to rest, and frees Arthur of his terrible obligation.

This is a wonderfully dense and layered story, and I think it would reward multiple readings. There are so many facets to the themes and plot, and the characters are real people, fallible and flawed and struggling. There are also several footnotes as the story goes along, and you realize that even though Opal is telling this story, someone else is writing it--and it isn't until the final pages that you find out who that is.

I think this book is fantastic. I've loved everything the author has written so far, but this is her best yet, and the best book I've read this year.

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