Starling Days

By Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Shortlisted for the 2019 Costa Novel Award
Published 2019

Image by Emel Yasar Photography.

This is Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s second novel, and when I saw it advertised I thought it sounded excellent. Mina and Oscar are newlyweds, but have been together for about ten years, since college. They live in New York, and move to London for a few months to fix up Oscar’s father’s collection of investment flats, and, hopefully, to help Mina’s battle with depression.

The novel opens with Mina preparing to jump from the George Washington Bridge. The police stop her, and though she denies any planned suicide, it would have been her second attempt in the six months since she married Oscar.

Oscar and Mina narrate the novel in turns in close third-person. Their stories are complicated – Oscar is the product of an extramarital affair and grew up with his mother, who now lives in a remote part of Scotland. He works for his father, who funded his education and visited him infrequently throughout his childhood. They now have a distant relationship, which warms when Oscar spends several weeks with his father and stepmother, much to Mina’s dismay. For it is only a few weeks into their arrival in London that Oscar returns to the U.S. to deal with a client. And since he does not know how to help his wife, he stays with his father and limits communication with Mina.

Alone in London, Mina has lots of time to “try to be happy,” as Oscar regularly begs of her. She is off her medications for the first time in many years, and takes time off work to continue her academic research into mythological women. Her doctor has instructed her to keep a diary of her moods. Down tick days are bad; up tick days are good. Several outside factors affect her mood dramatically: alternately Oscar’s interest in caring for her and then his disinterest; Phoebe, Oscar’s school friend’s sister; and a diagnosis of ovarian cysts. While the cysts are no serious danger to her health, they do prompt questions about whether she and Oscar will have children, and subsequently how equipped Mina is to care for a child. When the doctor asks if she is trying for children, Mina says she hadn’t thought about it. “The world would not let a woman ignore this question. What she meant was that she had come to no conclusions, other than that in the immediate future she couldn’t see herself taking care of a mouse, never mind a child.”

Mina herself was raised mostly by her grandmother, since her mother died in the bath when Mina was young. Mina was told her mother slipped, but as a teenager she wondered about this explanation, and then dismissed any controversy as an adult. “She’d fantasised about slit wrists or a bottle of Jameson followed by a drunken stupor. It was all too plausible that the woman left alone with a new baby in a small apartment with cockroaches that crawled up through the toilet had wanted to drown her sorrows in hot water and warm whiskey….Perhaps her mother had had postpartum depression, perhaps she’d had a drink problem, perhaps she’d slipped. It didn’t matter.”

Instead of exploring these difficult questions, Mina focuses mainly on Phoebe. She explains that she had always been attracted to women, but Phoebe is the first woman with whom she has a sexual relationship. Phoebe is reeling from a divorce and sleeping on her brother’s couch, so is hardly the best choice for Mina to fall for – but she does. And so the central question of the novel becomes, will Oscar and Mina remain together? Their relationship seems to have always been about Oscar taking care of Mina, and they are both tired of it. A change in dynamic is necessary, but it is unclear if they are aware or able to push forward.

I generally liked the story and characters in this novel. They were well-drawn, and though the pace lagged a bit in the last third of the book, Mina’s struggle remained an engaging component. It was fun to “see” my city as a tourist, and to be with Mina as she discovered the Columbia Road Flower Market and Highbury Fields.

But there is a big “but” to all this – I found the overly descriptive, highly metaphoric language extremely distracting to the narrative and to the plot as a whole. It felt entirely overwritten, as if I could never quite shed Buchanan’s voice and hear Mina and Oscar’s. For this reason, it was not an enjoyable read. That said, my favorite writers are Ernest Hemingway and Anne Tyler – decidedly spare and to the point, so my opinion on Starling Days is likely a matter of taste. Two stars.

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