Let’s get it out of the way for the CBR Bingo this is row 2, column 1: Dwelling.
My rating on Storygraph is 3.5 and we don’t have have decimals and fraction ratings here, but this isn’t something I’d rate a 4. In that case, I’m CBR rating it a 3.
I tagged Starling House #StrangerThings and I also tagged it #GothicRomance and #MiningCountry and, in sum, that’s how I’d describe the genre and even plot of this book. This is one I wasn’t sure I’d stick with. My DNF for eBooks is 25% and I was working through it, checking more often than I’d like if it was time yet… and then I got to a point in the novel where I thought, Yeah, I’m sticking with this, and checked my progress to find I was at 27% when I made that decision. I’m glad I stuck through it. At a certain point I decided I really wanted to see how it would end, and when I got there I felt glad I’d made it. But I’m not sure it’s a book that’s as compelling and engrossing to me as it will be to others. YMMV with Starling House as with everything else.
To get some criticism out of the way I’ll do it now:
- The novel follows two (main) POVs which is find and standard in romantic-ish and/or pair MC novels. Thing is, though, that Harrow uses two different narrative types to what I believe is poor effect. The main-MC, Opal, tells her sections (the majority of the novel) in first person voice. Meanwhile the secondary MC, Arthur, has sections in third person voice.
- There’s an attempt at frame of footnotes and editorial context which isn’t frequent enough and then suddenly drops off. Considering I just gave a five star review to a book that does this to excellent effect I found Harrow’s attempt weak. To the point that I would describe it as a failure.
- We’re told a lot how “ugly” the MCs are. I don’t know that I believe that. I also find it difficult to take the word of what are not unreliable narrators. It’s… strange. I don’t think “crooked front teeth” are sufficient “ugly” characteristics. And maybe if that’s all we’ve got to take her word for it, then we should just not have that at all. Kirsten Dunst is beautiful. Please look for pics of her.
What I think worked really well – and the parts I liked the most – are the parts of this story that tie this gothic romance to the racist history of Kentucky and, specifically, to the mining industry and the way mining barons stripped a land and polluted (and still do) a land and a people with no regard for the land nor the people who they enslaved and the communities they ensnare in this relationship of equal parts need and resentment for them. I wish I’d have seen more of that.
The story goes: There is a house in Eden, Kentucky that haunts the dreams (maybe nightmares) of a twenty-six year-old, Opal, who is ugly and poor. She is raising her teen brother after the death of her mess of a mother some over a decade earlier. She lives in a motel and lives on microwavable meals she’s afforded by either pilfering them or stealing money or doing odd jobs to afford them. The only thing that’s brought her any solace in this life is a gothic eerie storybook from a long-dead local woman… the woman whose home haunts Opal’s dreams. One day, in a daze, those dreams lead her to that home – the titular Starling House – and it’s Heathcliff proprietor, Arthur. What ensues is part haunted house, part historical exploration of the truth of Starling House and it’s spooky caretaker.
It’s also the story of Eden. The town where this novel takes place. Opal reflects on the horrors of Starling House, the hauntings, the monsters – the imagined or perhaps real.
I have the sudden, ugly sense that Eden deserved every year of four luck, every bad dream, every Beast that padded down the streets.
Starling House has moments like those – narration and lines that really do elevate the novel past what I didn’t like about it. Lines that pulled me out of the story and forced me to wish it had been a little different. Just a little different. Different like LaValle’s Lone Women – that it could tell both a compelling gothic romance and tell us about the horrors man and greed have wrought on our soil. Horrors that have a body count and destroy generations. Horrors of the chattel slavery and patriarchy and classism and a dwindling Appalachia .
…but maybe that’s all a good ghost story is: a way of handing out consequences to the people who never got them in real life.
I argue that’s exactly what a good ghost story is. And I wished that Harrow had given me something I could shout from atop mountains about. I know a lot of my friend will like this, and I know a lot of my peers will rave about it and recommend it. I bet it will top our best reads list. It just won’t top mine. But it almost might have.