Sunday, November 24, 2013

Starlight, by Stella Gibbons

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Stella Gibbons’s late sixties novel, Starlight, pits Christian rationality against demonic supernatural powers. The backdrop for this mystery tale is the poor yet decent English slums of the post-war period. The novel has a rich texture of all things British – cold winter walks, endless cups of tea, hard pressed vicars and eccentrics. 

Stella Gibbons is best known for her brassy debut novel, Cold Comfort Farm (1932). What is less known is that she continued to write with great energy, publishing over 30 books during her lifetime. She wrote poetry and short stories, but the novel was Gibbons’s preferred mode. While Cold Comfort Farm is a perennial favourite, forever in print, her other work has fallen by the wayside. In an effort to revive many a neglected Gibbons title, Vintage Classics has gone about reissuing a selection of her worthier novels.

Starlight describes life at the poorer end of the British class system. This is a novel full of cups of tea, eccentric old men, weary vicars, traumatised immigrants and bustling women going about their domestic chores. Gibbons also has an obvious love for the delights of the English suburbs and bombed out slums of the post-war period. She describes cold winters, late night walks and autumn foliage with a wistful desire. She successfully wraps these intimate feelings around her readers, making you want to head out of the house for a brisk walk on a cool evening, warmed with mountains of heavy clothing.

The plot is a strange one, the subject matter pitting Christian rationality against supernatural mystery. Two sisters, Annie and Gladys Barnes, fear that they will be tossed out of their rented cottage when a new owner takes over. The worst that happens to the quaintly named Rose Cottage where the Barnes sister reside, however, is a good make over. A neighbouring cottage, Lily Cottage, is also bought, and the new owner, Mr Pearson, installs his mysteriously sick wife there. The two sisters are eager to learn more, and it soon emerges that Mrs Pearson is a former clairvoyant or psychic who still goes into disturbing trances now and then. The local vicar also gets involved, trying to put Mrs Pearson on the right path.

It’s hard to figure out what the theme of Starlight is. The novel is more of an intimate painting of post-war suburban life than anything. Most of her characters are doll like figures. The eccentric Mr Fisher, who lives above the Barnes sisters, even makes dolls himself as a means of extra income. The supernatural aspects of the story come close to throwing the reader off. What’s an evil spirit, or could it even be the devil, doing haunting this landscape of ginger bread houses and raggedy dolls? In the end Gibbons makes sure British innocence is restored, and perhaps at last this is what it all means, the permanence of British manners and morals are inviolable against outside evil. Could Starlight be a vindication of the common decency of English life against such barbarities as Nazism and Fascism?

Starlight, by Stella Gibbons. Published by Vintage Classics. ISBN: 9780099528692 RRP: $12.95