Sometimes you read a book which makes you think of the author, “Have you been following me?”. Sophie Duffy’s novel Bright Stars is one of those. Her cultural references and the quotes she uses fit my life and back story so snuggly it is uncanny. Burns, Stevenson, Scott and Blake are ubiquitous enough to chime with many other book lovers, but Christopher Reeves’ ‘Superman’, Motorhead, Barbara Dickson! These are a few of my favourite things which also unexpectedly turn up.
This will partly be due to my formative years roughly matching those of the central characters in Bright Stars, but it’s more than that. Others will find their own points of recognition in the novel as the friendships outlined have a universality which allows the reader access. This is a book which welcomes you in and makes you feel like you belong, as if you are involved and invested in the unfolding events, and that is a difficult trick to pull off.
This is partly down to the well-drawn characters which stay on the right side of stereotypes, but who are recognisable all the same. The novel focuses on the unlikely bonds formed between a group of university students who seem to have little in common except that they attend the same institution. Imagine the members of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club remained friends after the film ended and you have some idea as to the group and their individual characters. The book opens with an invitation for them all to meet up again almost 30 years later, and we are always aware that this reunion is where the book is heading.
The narrator is Cameron Spark, described at one point as part Charles Pooter from The Diary of a Nobody and part Adrian Mole, and like those two characters you are on his side despite his trials and tribulations. He is a man now in his mid-forties and life has not turned out as he had hoped. He believes the reason for this is to be found in his past and the proposed reunion offers him a shot at redemption,he’s just not sure how or what form that will take. Time then moves between 1985 & ’86 and 2013 and we can see how Cameron meets and then becomes dependant on his fellow conspirators. Tommo, short for Ptolomy, is a rich kid who dreams of stardom, and with the levels of self belief to pull it off. Canadian Christie is as much of an outsider as Cameron, in her own way, but with a drive for success to match Tommo’s, and less need for that belief to be drug fuelled.
Bex is originally portrayed as a British version of the ‘Manic-Pixie Dream Girl’ but we soon learn there is more to her than that, something that applies to all the characters. She is the one who Cameron encounters first, and from that moment he is saved and doomed. Chance and happenstance are vital as seemingly unimportant decisions have huge consequences. Duffy manages to render these four as fully formed and heartbreakingly human, their feelings dominated by guilt, self-doubt, anxiety and desire. It’s not a case of ‘je regret rein’, more ‘je regret tout’, as their later lives become defined by what they believe they have lost rather than what they have gained. One of the central questions Bright Stars poses concerns unrequited love. Is it tragic or heroic, or perhaps some where in between? How you answer that will probably depend on the music you listen to and the books you read, or maybe it’s vice-versa.
It is a novel which confounds in the best way. Just when you are settled in it then takes you somewhere much darker and it is all the better for it. You begin to understand not only Cameron, but everyone else more clearly; their initially hidden complexities there for all to see. Duffy changes tone with a lightness of touch which makes what happens all the more powerful, and believable. By laying the groundwork with her characters, when things go wrong you not only care, you think “that could have been me”. We all have ‘sliding doors’ moments in our lives where things could have gone differently. What happens in the novel is traumatic but never melodramatic. Bright Stars will make you reflect on your own youth, both the good and the bad.
The one criticism I have is in the use of footnotes (something Duffy herself refers to in an Endnote which closes the novel). In recent times there have been a fashion for footnotes in fiction, (I blame David Foster Wallace who took them to extremes). I find they rarely add anything to a novel, and that’s the case in Bright Stars. The use of quotes interspersed throughout add context and interest, but the footnotes have the effect of interrupting the text; they feel like editorial suggestions which the writer couldn’t quite face losing. They certainly don’t spoil the book, just act as little speed bumps when you are in full flow.
Actually, after all of the above careful criticism, all you really need to know is that I started Bright Stars around four in the afternoon one rainy day, didn’t stop until 11.45 in the evening, and was sad when it was over. Time flies when a book captures you in this way. I wanted to spend more time with these characters. I want to know they’ll be OK. Sophie Duffy has managed to look to the past without straying into the realms of nostalgia. This is storytelling of the highest order, and in the end it’s the story that counts. Funny, tragic and a testament to the worst and best of human nature, it’s a novel which will leave you thoughtful and thankful, and all the better for reading it.
Here is the audio version of this review: