I’d already read a few of Alan Warner’s books before starting this, and had enjoyed The Sopranos, his novel about a group of teenage girls from the Port, a small town in Scotland, who travel to Edinburgh with their school choir for an ill-fated singing competition. The girls are full of life and desperate for adventure, sex, binge-drinking and the drama of the big city. The characters seem very real, especially in their vivid dialogue, which reveals the dynamics of the group, the girls’ insecurities and the friendships they form. While Alan Warner writes about the typical teenage conversations about clothes, make-up, alcohol and sex amazingly accurately, the girls also come alive as individuals, not as stereotypes.
The Stars in the Bright Sky revisits the same central group of girls, now in their early 20s, as they meet at Gatwick Airport to book a last-minute holiday. Some are still living in the Port – Manda, who now has a baby son, is managing a hairdressers, Chell is working in the Tourist Information Office and Kylah, who has a beautiful voice and ‘could have been in Hear’Say’ as Manda points out, is working in Woolworths. Finn and Kay have both left the Port and are now students – Kay is in London, training to be an architect, while Finn is studying philosophy in Edinburgh – and the girls are joined by Finn’s glamorous and mysterious university friend, Ava. So the novel dramatises the culture clash between those who’ve left their childhood home, are middle-class and more educated, and those who have stayed in the Port, although in the end these differences don’t seem to have a massive impact on their relationships.
As with The Sopranos, I found the book’s dialogue very entertaining and it’s difficult to believe it’s not just a transcript of real speech. The dialogue forms a large part of the novel, and it’s strange how interesting a book mainly consisting of drunken conversations in bars or hotels can be. Each girl’s relationships with the others is revealed, especially through the moments of understanding and honesty between individuals that occur when they break away from the group for a while. The group as a whole is dominated by Manda, who is a terrible, overbearing character and has to be in control and the centre of attention at all times. It’s very realistic the way the other girls are terrified of disagreeing with Manda, but then complain about her among themselves and are constantly trying to work out how to deal with her, although they do have a certain amount of affection and tolerance for her. Manda is a great comic and grotesque creation, as reading one of her over-excited rants will show.
I hope this won’t be too much of a plot spoiler, but I’ll just say that quite a large proportion of the book takes place in Gatwick Airport, as the girls encounter problems that delay their departure. I found the idea of setting a novel in an airport interesting. It’s a place people perhaps don’t give much significance in their minds, as it’s usually just a stopping point on the way to the real destination. Although an airport can be the backdrop to strong emotions, I know I personally tend to put the experience out of my mind with relief as soon as the plane has taken off. On the rare occasions that I fly, I suppose the anxiety I feel and the need to navigate this disorientating environment make me move through the whole process in a slightly detached way and then instantly forget about it. So the way the book focuses on this transitional experience, which most people (I’m guessing…) don’t think much about, is unusual, in that it’s bringing something neglected to the foreground. Leaving characters stranded at the airport also prolongs an experience that should only be temporary so that it becomes a repetitive nightmare. And now I’m thinking of those occasional (true) stories of homeless people who end up living in airports undetected for months or years. It’s scary to think that it’s an inbetween place where you can fall through the cracks and no one would really notice.
The physical appearance of the airport also makes it an intriguing setting. Alan Warner describes it in a way that creates a kind of poetry out of these intimidatingly huge, impersonal and space-age places. The book seemed to suggest that the airport is created by an extreme mixture of capitalism and technology. It’s bland – in that you’d find those same chain shops and business hotels anywhere in the country – but also awe-inspiring, as it’s so vast. It’s a luxurious place, in a way, as almost every food, drink or shopping desire you may have can be catered for, if you can afford it, but this whole strange city is ephemeral and has no history – it’s been created in a hurry to meet the needs of travellers, has been set down in the landscape and could just as easily be dismantled and removed. I liked the way this novel makes the airport expand into a complete world so you feel as if you know it all too well by the time you finish the book! I think I’ll be on the look-out for novels with a similarly weird and unexpected setting, as it’s something I found interesting.