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.