The Stars in the Bright Sky, by Alan Warner

Purchased from the Book Depository

Had I been Alan Warner’s editor, I am pretty sure that I would have gone to the mat in demanding that this book be titled Departure Lounge. And that the entire marketing budget be devoted to ensuring major displays in every airport bookstore in the English-speaking world. I am certain the commercial success would have been enormous, although one side effect would probably be that the novel would not have made the Booker longlist.

The Stars in the Bright Sky is the story of six young women in their twenties who have arrived at Gatwick Airport ready for a holiday — destination to be determined by the best last-minute, online bargain that is available. Five of them went to school together in Scotland and remain “friends”; the sixth is a stylish, posh English roommate of the member of the group now residing in London — she brings the mystery and suspicion that are necessary to put some tension into the sixsome. All of the action takes place in and around Gatwick, hence my title.

The four travelling from Scotland have just arrived by train and are on their way to the Flight Deck Hotel:

Suspicious Manda, calm Kay, fascinated Kylah and timid Chell sat alongside one another on the staunchly commandeered back seat of the Hotel Hoppa minibus; other passengers seated in front of them were also looking out, glancing upward at the circular, elevated traffic lanes.

Among all this gloom, the minibus windows seemed dirty, perhaps even tinted, yet the outside entire — those night airs — was dusted with a particular light above each sodium lamp and just below every car park floodlight; a spectral grittiness haloed vehicle tail lamps on the limited feeder lanes where cars and mysterious white vans appeared with an unbound continuity.

If you have ever travelled internationally, you have been on those dreadful minibuses. Warner also wastes little time in introducing you to someone you have encountered on one of the minibuses — the incredibly annoying, empty-headed “other” traveller who never shuts up. In this book her name as Amanda Tassy. Three of the four light cigarettes immediately upon getting off the van and Manda opens up:

Smoking her second already, Manda drawled, ‘We don’t know where we’re headed, do we? Down here getting one of these last-minute package deal things on her laptop computer.’ Manda pointed aggressively at Kay. ‘You don’t know what to pack when you don’t know what place you’ll end up. We could be away some place boiling hot, like Magaluf where I want to go, or end up some daft freezing place they all want to go to. There’s so bloody many of them, aren’t there? All the places? Wherever places we go, I don’t care, cos I’ve had my bikini wax.’

Manda is the ignorant traveller from hell (I am pretty sure you can find a version of her in the bar or departure lounge of any international airport). She never stops loudly declaiming her thoughts, none of which have any value. Back home, she is a Practice Manager in her sister’s salon, so she regularly critiques the makeup, nail polish and shaved/waxed legs of anyone in sight. She’s also a regular at Rascals, the new “club” in the village (to which she frequently texts thoughts, to keep the other regulars up to date on her progress). She also is a single mother, accent on the single, but does keep checking back on wee Sean. Warner makes it clear that she will never leave the village — it is as big a world as she can ever be expected to handle — so this holiday package trip, wherever it ends up, is Manda’s version of life-expanding experience.

(Why would anyone go on holiday with a version of Manda? Ha. If you have ever travelled anywhere in a group of six or more, there is almost always a Manda. It is a testimony to the fact that the bonds of old acquaintance don’t separate easily — or necessarily hold up to travel. What you can walk away from at home is tougher to escape on the road.)

The four, all small town girls travelling with major amounts of heavy luggage, meet up with Finn (their old school friend) and the mysterious Ava (Londoners travelling only with a backpack each) at the hotel and begin the drinking that will be a constant factor in the rest of the novel — drinking, being drunk or recovering from drink pretty much frame the action of the book. The six head to the pub:

Some of the girls, especially Manda, were disillusioned that, as they entered the Flight Deck Hotel bar, more heads did not turn to them.

Finn and Ava were now accustomed to the general anonymity and nonchalance of great cities — the curtailed glance on entering an establishment had replaced the shameless but acceptable scrutiny of their home places. In their village and small town, Ava and Finn were scrutinised for hopefull signs of incipient dissolution and decay; in the great city of London they were only scanned for their possessions; assessed for any edge. Once upon a time, people looked and evaluated the face of a stranger, nowadays they first noted clothes, handbag and your wristwatch when you get to the top of the queue in McDonald’s on a Saturday night; perhaps your shoes as you walked away.

All of those quotes come from the first 33 pages of the book and for the next 118 pages (roughly 24 hours in the narrative) Warner embarks on a writing excursion that is amusing, perceptive and shows a remarkable understanding of international airports. The girls spend that night getting drunk; the conceit of most of this section is that next day a hungover Manda can’t find her passport so they spend it wandering around Gatwick and a number of the hotels that surround it. Camps and sub-groups amongst the six form, dissolve and reform by the hour — a number of different bars are visited. For readers who have travelled, Warner uses this backdrop to observe the phoney pubs and bars, fastfood outlets, trinket shops and apparel outlets that comprise the sterile, self-contained world of the modern airport. Parts of it are hilarious, parts bring up not-so-nostalgic airport memories and parts reflect the inevitable boredom that is a part of travel. For me, it worked.

The problem is that The Stars in the Bright Sky isn’t 151 pages long, it is 394. And after page 151, virtually nothing happens that isn’t a version of something that happened before (well we discover Ava’s secret, but it is entirely predictable). The characters don’t change — they just play out variations of their flaws and strengths (much more of the former than the latter) in new permutations. Having done such a great job of establishing the empty airport world in the first third of the book, there isn’t much to be added in the last two-thirds. Manda, dominating and interestingly irritating in the early part of the book, becomes mundane and boringly irritating (still dominating) for the rest.

And if you do get to the final page of the book, The Stars in the Bright Sky may have the tritest, copout ending of all time. (Sorry, but a reveal would be the spoiler of all spoilers.)

If you find yourself with a long wait in an airport, luggage that has no room for anything else and in need of a book to pass the time but worthy of being left behind in the lounge or on the plane, by all means invest the 13 pounds in Warner’s book. I can confidently say that while you wait for your flight to be called, you can look up from the book every five or 10 minutes and find the scene you just read being acted out across the room (okay, you probably have to be in the pub for much of that to happen). And I can equally assure you that if you leave the book behind when you reach page 151 you will not have missed a thing.

As to how this book got onto the Booker longlist, I sure hope whatever judge or judges advocated it will do some newspaper piece somewhere and explain why. Despite the positive parts that I could find, the idea that this is the “best novel” of 2010 is completely beyond my comprehension.

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16 Responses to “The Stars in the Bright Sky, by Alan Warner”

  1. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin I am seriously beginning to doubt whether ALL the judges have actually read ALL the books this year…

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: Part of me agrees with you — if one was to judge by only the first 150 pages of each book, this might be one of the greatest Booker years in history (I admit I haven’t checked). On the other hand, when it comes to the last 100 pages…….

    I’m now starting to think there might be three camps in the jury. One (probably a single judge) argued for this one and The Slap. Another pushed Tremain, Donoghue, Moore. And a third McCarthy, Galgut and Jacobson. The novels in each of those groups are similar, but the prospect of crossover appeal between the three is almost non-existent.

    If you have this on hand, given where you live, it is worth an hour or 90 minutes to read the first part. Then when the planes from Heathrow are passing overhead every 45 seconds you can look up and construct a story of what is happening on the plane.

  3. kimbofo Says:

    Gatwick Airport is my idea of hell.

    A book set in Gatwick Airport just makes me feel ill.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: Unless you are willing to explore your version of hell, I would ignore the book. Having said that, international airports are mini-worlds, which Warner captures early in this book. Don’t plan on reading all of it.

  5. Claire (Paperback Reader) Says:

    I haven’t reached this yet in my Booker reading but The Sopranos was an instant favourite of mine when I read it a decade ago; I found Warner’s writing perceptive and his characterisation of (at that time) teenage girls pitch-perfect but then I was also a girl still on the cusp of leaving my teens. I am anticipating that I may not have as positive reaction to its sequel as one would hope that my literary appreciation has matured in ten years.

    Oh, and I am with Kim: Gatwick is also my idea of hell and it is hard enough to pass the hour before a domestic flight there let alone days (my in-laws spent six days at Schiphol Airport during the recent volcanic ash debacle and I wonder if they could write something fitting for the Booker longlist).

  6. kimbofo Says:

    The publisher has sent me a copy of this book… I hadn’t realised it was set in the airport. I thought they jetted off to some sunny (and seedy) European seaside town. Now *that* would have been interesting.

    I suspect I will get around to reading it at some point, but I won’t rush into it.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I typed out a spoiler and deleted it. Now you probably have to read the book. (Hint: You can stop at page 151 and jump to page 380 and not miss much.)

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Claire: Six days in the ash would be perfect prep work for this. I did not read The Sopranos so cannot comment on that front. I could see where if you were really into six women in their 20s dealing with each other there might be more here, but I don’t think so. Warner definitely has a lot of strengths and, for me, displayed them early — then he rather got lost in a mess.

  9. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Dear KFC:
    congratulations on reaching your 100,000 visitor milestone!

  10. dovegreyreader Says:

    Congrats from me too Kevin, here’s to the next 100k!

  11. John Self Says:

    Well done Kevin! Dammit, I spotted 99,700ish yesterday and hoped to be first in after the ton…

  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    394 pages. Bloody hell. That’s a lot of pages on an airport.

    I’m sure it can be done, but the result wouldn’t be remotely an airport novel.

    Oh dear, it sounds like it would have been better at half the length, kept tighter and to the point.

    I actually thought the premise sounded very tempting. The quotidianity of it. The examination of things we prefer to pass through as obliviously as possible. There’s a lot of potential there.

    Sadly, here, unrealised it seems.

  13. deucekindred Says:

    Heh if you think Gatwick is hell you haven’t experienced that torture area called Malpensa Airport. The worst part (and there are awful aspects to this monstrosity) is that some of the gates are hidden in corners in the lower levels and you spend a good thirty minutes searching for them.

    re Alan Warner – I simply loved Movern Callar but I found The Sopranos beyond Abysmal (yes the capital ‘A’ is on purpose) so when I found out this is the sequel I shuddered. Your review has confirmed my suspicions – thanks.

  14. Jackie (Farm Lane Books) Says:

    I agree with you. I’m reading this and only have about 50 pages left to go. I loved the first section – the writing was much more sophisticated than in The Sopranos and I loved the realism of the young girls, but it is just too long. I got bored after about 100 pages. I’m interested to see how it ends, but this book really needs about 200 pages cutting from the middle.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sheila, John, DGR: Thanks. I hope the next 100,000 is as much fun as the first bunch was.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max, Jackie, deucekindred: I sure wish his editor had said “give it one more go, this time with a red pencil”. I don’t think he actually would have had to rewrite much (well, the ending for sure), just take stuff out. So if you do pick it up in the airport, Max, I’d say stop after Saturday (or go on to Sunday if you are willing to risk punishment) — Sunday is when they go to the castle and it does have some funny parts, but the diminishing effect is very much in play.

    And Jackie, do drop by when you have got to the end and let me know if you find it as dreadful as I did.

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