Alex Peake-Tomkinson

Staring into the abyss

The reader must play detective in unravelling a trail of clues as to just how disturbed the protagonist really is

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has achieved that rare feat, in her second novel Starling Days, of writing a convincing novel about depression which manages, miraculously, not to be in itself depressing. Her success is partly due to the fact that her protagonist, Mina, is not flattened by her despair and remains alive enough to become fascinated by another woman, Phoebe, her husband’s best friend’s sister. When Phoebe asks her to say something about herself, Mina considers what she might voice:

I want to run my tongue along the dent in your collarbone that your top has made visible. Nope. Sometimes I want to die and sometimes I want to buy a box of tomatoes and stand by the fridge eating them out of a paper carton and I don’t understand how I can hold both desires. Nope.

But Mina is brave enough to pursue this relationship, perceiving that it may transform her life.

Her husband, Oscar, is sympathetically drawn, and the intense claustrophobia of caring for someone with a mental illness carefully evoked, not least when he buys her roses to cheer her up and she sighs. ‘Oscar wanted to sigh too. But you didn’t get to sigh when you were the healthy one.’

The novel’s other great triumph is to leave trails of clues as to Mina’s mental health so that the reader has to play detective. This not only feels real — mental illness is not easily contained and defined — but also creates a narrative propulsion that powers the plot.

Mina is first seen hovering at night on George Washington Bridge and is stopped by the police. The reader knows almost as little as the police at this point: does she really have to go to work the following day? And does she have a husband who will collect her? Unravelling the truth is one of the considerable pleasures of this beautifully written novel.

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