Book Review: Starling by Kirsten Cram

Starling – Kirsten Cram (Highway Six, 2021)

Starling is a novel of childhood. As I finished reading it, I was trying to put my finger on what other book it brought to mind until I realized the book I was thinking about was Bridge to Terebithia. While Starling isn’t exactly a kids book (though I think teen readers would find a lot here to appreciate as well as adults), it shares a sense of wonder, an appreciation of nature, but also a sense of the darkness of childhood that reminded me of Bridge to Terebithia. It also features a young boy and a young girl who meet and become best friends, linked by their shared secrets.

Alice is the new girl in the town of Starling. She and her mother have just moved to this tiny town off the highway, adjacent to nothing in particular, so that her mother can be closer to her job at the glass plant. Remy is a boy the same age who lives nearby with his father and older brother. The two are immediately drawn together; both are rather lonely, rather outcast. Starling is a small town, distinguished by very little. The residents live rough and isolated lives, both uninterested and overly involved in their neighbours’ activities. As an outsider, Alice is disdained by most of the other children and even the adults around her. Her mother works shifts that leave Alice alone often, then, later, becomes focused on a relationship with a new boyfriend. Remy is eager to be absent from his own home where his mother has died and his father and brother both loom over him with a heavy sense of violence. Together Alice and Remy spend most of their time out of doors. They fish, they build a tree fort, they explore the natural world around them. They become each other’s strongest point, the safest place. Both would easily be called neglected children but there are no adults around them that seem to pay attention enough to care. The exception is another nearby neighbour, Madame Voisine, an older woman living alone. Rumoured to be a witch, Remy fears her as all the local children do but Alice is drawn to her and finds a safe haven in her home and in their relationship.

It’s hard to pinpoint precisely what the plot is in Starling but I didn’t worry about that as I read. The story is driven forward by the relationship between Remy and Alice and the over-riding tension of the novel exists in the inherent danger felt when two children are alone. Particularly when neither of those children have a safe home or adult waiting for them. At the same time, there is a lot of beauty surrounding Alice and Remy, the beauty of the natural world. Cram lingers over descriptions of the world around these children – the trees, the colours, the scents of the air. Starling is a story that involves your senses, reminiscent of so many cold winter days, hot summer evenings, and the tiny delights found when you stop and examine creation, as children tend to do. There is the excitement and magic of discovering the world at a young age. The sense of danger around Remy and Alice always felt connected to the human world around them, not the natural one, even when they may have engaged in objectively dangerous outdoor activities. (This too would be a key difference from Bridge to Terebithia.)

The sense of place is so strong that even though the broader location of Starling the town is never stated, I was convinced it was in my own province of British Columbia. I was picturing one of those little Vancouver Island towns that are easy to miss off the highway but mention comes later Prince George so I’m sure my BC guess at least is right. Less clear to me was the era in which the book was set. No mentions of technology are made and that as well as the way the school in Starling treats it students would have me guess some time in the 1970s.

Kirsten Cram approached me over Instagram, asking if I’d be interested in reading and posting about her debut novel. Without knowing anything about her, I perused her Instagram account (@kirstencramwriting) and was intrigued. There was something very precise and detailed about her photographs, something that showed a fascination with small details and the natural world. It spoke of someone who noticed things and seemed to mull them over and it intrigued me enough that I said yes to her request. Now that I’ve read Starling, I’d say my impression was pretty accurate.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Starling by Kirsten Cram”

  1. This sounds pretty interesting. Glad you enjoyed it! I haven’t read a book that could be described as deeply involving your sense – but, I can see the appeal.

  2. It sounds as if you enjoyed reading a story set in a location that is so familiar to you. Not using technology or world events to identify the era is interesting, although I suppose as time passes that might become an identifier in itself.

    1. I would have liked a little more to solidly place the reader in a time setting but it also worked the way it was. The simple fact that no characters mentioned phones or computers gave a pretty good idea of when we were.

  3. This sounds very cool. I like books that tend to crossover ages as well, and the cover of this looks gorgeous. Interesting the author contacted you over Instagram, does she live in BC as well? She must have sensed a kindred spirit in you 🙂

    1. She grew up in BC but lives in the US now, Las Vegas I think. I appreciated that she followed me first and seemed to take the time to see what kind of books I actually read!

  4. While the characters sound like Bridge to Terabithia, the focus on description and nature reminds me of The Secret Garden. It’s been a while since I read it, but the garden evokes a sense of imagination and an appreciation of nature, if I remember correctly.

    I love how the cover is both pretty and unnerving. Those birds!

    1. Oh, that’s such an interesting comparison! Yes, I could see that but funnily enough I never made that connection, even though I just finished re-reading The Secret Garden. Sort of the magic of nature and the way it can change your perspective on the world.

      I really like the cover!

  5. I’ve noticed that when I read aloud to Nick I remember more of the book’s details, but don’t make connections to larger themes or other books as I go. I wonder if you were in the same situation.

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