The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner (Jonathan Cape - 2010)
An enduring power of fiction is its ability to create gateways to new, perhaps previously uncharted, domains. It allows readers to experience new or unfamiliar surroundings, to travel to far flung climes, otherwise inaccessible through geographical or ideological limitations. It can also take something familiar and reappraise its ordinariness, say something true and revealing about the complex beauty of human beings.
It is this approach that can be seen in Alan Warner’s sixth novel The Stars in the Bright Sky. Set for the most part in the unglamorous metal intestines of Gatwick airport, the surroundings are at once familiar to anyone who has felt hours of their life waste away in a British airport yet rendered in such poetically precise description it makes the reader consider them anew. This novel abandons tropical adventuring for an exploration into the intricacies of female friendship.
Warner’s cast for this story are six young women on the brink of escape, seeking to trade their mundane lives for a hedonistic week of sun and excess. They are always on the verge of going somewhere - Gran Canaria, Rhodes, even Las Vegas. Events conspire against them, beginning with brash, Guinness-guzzling Manda mislaying her passport so they never take off. Instead we follow them as they traverse the north and south terminals taking in the inhospitable airport bars and synthetically ugly hotel rooms ranging across the full complement of star ratings.
We first met most of the girls as seventeen year old choristers on tour in The Sopranos (Jonathan Cape -1998). Now in their early twenties, only Orla is absent, who we learn has died in the interim of leukaemia.
Warner draws a counterpoint between Manda (single mother), Kylah (the voice) and Chell (the fashion victim) who stayed in their small Scottish hometown and Kay (the one with the credit card) and Finn (the philosopher) who moved away to study. In this sequel they are joined by Ava, a wealthy English friend of Finn’s from university. Ava is both catalyst and antagonist goading Manda and exposing the inevitable change in the group dynamics between those who have opened themselves up to a new geography and experiences, seeming to progress while the others remain static and tethered to the past. Warner explores, through electric dialogue, the foundation of the bonds of friendship through shared experiences; grief, love, scrapes, fights and accidents, and ways in which people alter and move away physically, geographically and psychologically creating a rift that can’t be plastered over with a round of drinks.
The shadow of loss and in particular Manda’s grief lie very close to a surface veneered with banter and raucous behaviour and we often see chinks in her cheerful resilience and bravado.
The structure divides the action across consecutive days and appears to unfold in real time. Warner’s writing resonates most in the hilarious, brilliantly choreographed set pieces, where the coarse juxtaposition of his imagery with the rambunctious dialogue harmonises. Relief in both physical and comic terms comes at the centre of the novel when, with twenty hours to kill, they leave the multi-story purgatory for a day trip to Hever Castle. It climaxes with a hilarious sequence that sees Manda sliding on her front in mud.
By trapping five strong-minded, loud girls in a confined space there is something of a social experiment examining the effects of claustrophobia on relationships. The action of the novel is driven by the dialogue which is fast dripping with wit and acute, often surprising observations. Manda’s dialogue in particular is often at odds with the persona she inhabits - she regurgitates wide-ranging cultural references from ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ to Hamlet. With brilliant audacity he makes the ugliest locales of Gatwick important and a stool in the smoking section of the Village Inn becomes Manda’s burnished throne.
Kylah feels less present in this novel than the other characters but this reflects the different roles within a group of headstrong friends and it is Kylah who brings the novel’s title from her rendition of ‘Away in a Manger’ sung as a lullaby in the Gatwick Hilton family room.
The zing of Warner’s prose - a mixture of intense description and narratorly concern - prevents The Stars in the Bright Sky becoming a clichéd depiction of ladettes. He allows the various exploits to unfurl exposing the young women’s hopes, dreams, mistakes and lies, punctuated by excessive drinking without judgement. A description of a hotel corridor, followed by Manda vomiting in the grille of an ice vending machine as cubes rain down on top of her is precise, gross and visceral.
Warner’s choreography is admirable. It would be laborious and tricky to maintain the third person ventriloquist voice that moves between each character and omniscience for all five girls for 400 pages, so he cleverly splits them up into more manageable and fluidly interchanging twos and threes. The obvious differences between privileged Ava and the long established Scottish friends avoids being heavy-handed and is used to great effect to pinpoint the frightening but inevitable shifts in relationships you presumed would stay the same forever, how it is easy to have your head turned by sophistication and even the most assured of surfaces can harbour a black heart.
At times the narrative voice lends the book a sense of something like a fable and as the distance from the reader increases it becomes like a star looking down on them from above. The prose style has a heaviness to it - an acquired taste - but one which I found instantly appealing. These are characters so bright you would happily follow them to a future instalment as Warner stretches back the sky to reveal the light beneath and allows them to shine.
Destiny is a theme throughout and the conclusion that we come hurtling towards (which I won’t reveal here for fear of lessening the impact) deepens the question of how much of past and future is written in the stars and awakens in the cast the sickening realisation that they cannot be either in control or constantly trying to lose it to forget; that life, like the jet engine, rumbles on.