Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan.jpg

Earlier this year I read the moving memoir “Mind on Fire” in which the author recounts his experiences with manic-depression, suicidal thoughts and the destructive impact his mental health issues have upon his personal relationships. An experience similar to this is dramatically rendered in Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s new novel “Starling Days”. It’s the story of Mina and Oscar, a young married couple living in New York City who temporarily move to London so Oscar can help his father prepare some run-down properties for sale. But Mina struggles with feelings of sadness which threaten to overwhelm her and self-harm. Her issues with mental health are portrayed with equal weight against Oscar’s no less heartrending emotional negligence being born as an illegitimate child who seeks to forge a connection with his aging father. Amidst their struggles, Mina makes a strong romantic connection with Phoebe, a red-haired English blogger whose presence brightens the world for Mina when she begins to feel overwhelmed by a suffocating loneliness. It’s noteworthy how this novel realistically and sympathetically portrays the experiences of a bisexual character. But Buchanan portrays all her characters’ journeys and dilemmas with a great deal of sympathy that made me feel wholly connected to them.

This is only Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s second novel but I can already see she has a touching methodology in her fiction for portraying the lives of distinct individuals who are powerfully connected. Her first novel “Harmless Like You” depicts the lives of a mother and child in different periods of time. In a similar way, “Starling Days” gives equal weight to two characters’ perspectives and how their personal struggles create severe challenges in their relationship. But the author has a magnanimous way of rendering the daily reality of their situations without making any judgements. She conveys in their dynamic how there’s no perfect way to go about helping someone dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. It’s not something that can be neatly fixed. It’s more like a balancing act between therapy, medication, attentive loved ones and an inner drive to continue. We see how Mina must consider these every day while also grappling with feeling like a burden because of her condition.

It feels as if Buchanan is slightly playing upon recent trends in literary fiction to invoke or retell Greco-Roman mythology through a modern perspective. In preparation for writing a tentative academic monograph Mina loosely researches stories of the few mythological women who survive in their tales since so many female mythological characters die through punishment, their own folly or cruel coincidence. Rather than creating her own fictional account of these women Buchanan references their stories amidst Mina’s own plight. It creates interesting points of comparison but also provides a poignant frame in which to see Mina’s journey as a literal struggle to survive amidst the beaconing hand of death. There’s also a playful sense that Mina is more able to understand the tragedy in these epic tales than the inscrutable complications found in modern life: “This world made so much more sense if it was filled with angry, hungry gods.”

StarlingDays.jpg

As moving as I find Buchanan’s writing, she has an occasional tendency to needlessly complicate some sentences in order to emphasize the physicality of her characters’ movements. So she’ll write “Her hands picked up her phone” when she could have instead just written “She picked up the phone.” Or “His legs carried him down the stairs and to the hall” instead of “He went downstairs.” This clunky phraseology can be distracting. But overall her writing has a pleasing fluidity to it in evoking all the undercurrents of emotion within her characters’ lives as they navigate the world and interact with one another. This is most powerfully rendered in the dialogue and communication between characters who gradually disconnect from one another until the reader can feel the sad gulf which exists between them.  

The novel poignantly considers the complications involved in relationships steered by dependencies that are emotional, financial and/or sexual. It’s not necessarily bad that such dependency exists because it necessitates a level of openness and vulnerability that’s needed in a strong relationship, but it can create a hierarchy and possessiveness which can impact upon people’s sense of self-worth. Fully accepting yourself while also truly loving someone else is difficult. “Starling Days” powerfully shows the nuance of such connections and it gives the story a rare clear-sighted honesty.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

One of the reasons why this book blog is called LonesomeReader is I want it to be an ongoing exploration of what loneliness means. People who can be termed as introverted or shy have a tendency to feel greater degrees of loneliness as they aren’t able to easily connect to others or socialize as naturally as more extroverted groups. Many who feel this way think of themselves as indistinct and unnoticed, standing on the sidelines or a wallflower. “Harmless Like You” begins with Yuki, an adolescent girl living in New York City in the late 1960s. She’s someone who often holds her feelings inside, but they seep out in creative ways through different artistic mediums with how she experiences colour and sees the world in a distinct way. The novel flips between the decades of Yuki’s development as a person and artist and a time in 2016 when a young man named Jay travels to Germany to inform his estranged mother Yuki about his father’s death and the house that was left to her. Their stories combine to form a powerfully emotional tale about family connections, self esteem and personal expression.

As a girl, Yuki thinks of herself as so invisible that not even the perverted man who flashes women on the street notices her. Because she sees herself as so separate from others she feels she has no impact on them. But a quiet presence can have just as powerful or a greater effect than someone who makes themselves loudly known. Since she’s not able to express her feelings to people her silence sometimes acts as a destructive force towards others and herself. It leads to the dissolution of her relationships with her parents who move to Japan, her only childhood friend Odile who pursues a modelling career and a man who later tries to earnestly love her. There’s a moving scene after her first sexual experience when she recalls her father hitting her knuckles when she was forced to memorize poetry, but she’s not able to speak about this with her partner. Opportunities for nurturing emotional connections are lost because Yuki is unable to express how she feels.

Her silence also leads her to not tell anyone about the abuse she receives within a difficult destructive relationship. There are strong descriptions of how “she’d been knocked out of herself. A screaming ghost girl, with teeth of orange glass, hovered above the body.” Yuki develops a fractured sense of self which makes her emotionally withdraw even more from other people. Yet she pursues further techniques for trying to artistically render her complex feelings in painting and photographs. Looking at a photograph of civilian girl victims in Vietnam, Yuki’s partner remarks how they are harmless like her. This makes a deep impact on Yuki in how she is seen externally by some white Americans to be a completely benign presence. The novel shows a complex understanding of how passive people subtly enact their own influence.

Jay has a cat named Celeste. "The one thing a hairless cat shouldn't do is hairball."

Jay has a cat named Celeste. "The one thing a hairless cat shouldn't do is hairball."

Yuki’s son Jay is a new father who has inherited some of his mother’s traits. Emotional connections are difficult for him as well – especially with his newborn son of whom he remarks “I’d never dreamed of leaving my wife until this creature came into our lives.” He only achieves a sense of emotional stability in his connection with his elderly cat Celeste. Having never known his mother, he’s kept inside many feelings about her and their broken family until he travels to Germany to finally meet with her. This encounter allows for the possibility of more open emotional connections in both of their lives.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel contains a lot of moving descriptions of how colour relates to emotion. At times Yuki experiences a synaesthesia so when she’s taken to a movie cinema the buttered popcorn connects with her partner: “The sweet yellow smell was Lou.” Many chapter headings begin with a description of a particular colour and its complex meaning. In a similar fashion the way Yuki experiences colour tempers how she relates to and feels the world around her. This creates a sophisticated portrait of an artistic sensibility and the story cleverly shows the influence introverted personalities have upon the world. “Harmless Like You” is an extremely moving and imaginative novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson