Starling Days — Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

How does a couple deal with mental health problems?

In Starling Days, the main character, Mina, is suffering from severe depression and her husband, Oscar, is struggling to cope following two suicide attempts. What Buchanan does well is explore the sense of helplessness on both sides, and how this is progressively compounded by an inability to communicate.

The best novels of this kind free the reader to be impartial and balanced in their judgement of each side of the relationship. I think Buchanan wants us to understand and sympathise with Mina and Oscar, who both behave badly while also having some redeeming features. But ultimately Oscar didn’t pass the test of being sympathetic enough: a man who deals with insecurity — however legitimate — in a relationship by putting a tracking app on his partner’s phone is a categorical Bad Egg.

For me, there are parallels with Fleishman Is In Trouble: another case of the (unintentionally?) unsympathetic man. But the difference is in the level of intrigue. While quite a bit happens in Starling Days, I didn’t feel there was enough plot. It’s probably the challenge much of it taking place in Mina’s head and the fact that she’s not quite interesting enough to carry that off.

Part of the slightly unreal quality the book — for me — is also that Buchanan’s London doesn’t have much depth. I had a sense of London but was disappointed not to get a clear indication of where Mina lives. It’s a small point and for the very many readers who don’t live here, this of course won’t matter (I have no qualms with her portrayal of New York) — and perhaps I lack imagination — but there is such a joy in a place you know being convincingly rendered in fiction.

To give Buchanan her due, Starling Days moves along quite nicely. It’s an accessible read on a difficult topic, which, from the author’s note is obviously the intention. On that measure, she succeeds and I see why the book got a Costa nomination. It just didn’t hit the mark for me.

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