Publishing is hard. I may or may not have mentioned this before. But the works of lesser-known or up-and-coming writers are always a treat for me, because it's close to what I would call "the cutting edge" of publishing. Those risky, innovative works. Those works that fall more into the spectrum of art instead of consumable product. I absolutely love them.
This book is one of those works. Not necessarily risky, because it's absolutely brilliant, but not published or marketed by a super large print with tons of resources. This is one of those "holy shit" books, where you don't know what you're expecting, but it sure as hell isn't what you get. And it, literally, was dropped into my lap. How could I not take the time to read it?
Unlike many other books I've read and reviewed, the blurbs on the back flap are painfully accurate. When I first read them, I took them with grain of salt, but one blurb describes the reader's emotion as "terrified"--and I was. I was really truly terrified while I was reading this. Not in an H.P. Lovecraft sort of way, but in the "holy shit, how far is this going to go?" sort of way.
I burned through this book in about five hours, and that's only because I was interrupted a few times.
A House Made of Stars, is, as another blurb on the back flap describes, a coming-of-age story and a survival narrative. These two things, when combined, yield something very painful and very tragic. I was in no way prepared, mentally or emotionally, for this heart-wrenching story.
So, let's put it all out there plainly: it's about domestic violence and child abuse. If you can't deduce it from the four sentence summary on the back of the book ("They must never call the police"), or the blurbs using words like "survival narrative" and "the reader...is terrified," I'm making it clear: this book deals with tough, heavy subject matters.
The narrator is a child. We only know the narrator's gender from a few references other characters make, and we only know her age from the back flap. We don't know her name. In fact, we don't know anyone's name, really. We know she has a younger sister. Her parents are Momma and Daddy. We follow the narrator around with her family over the course of almost a year.
That's it. That's the story. And I really wish it was that simple, because it wouldn't hurt as much.
So we have this anonymous little girl, and her, ultimately, anonymous family. Characters are only referred to by their relation to other characters. The narrator's aunt isn't "Aunt So-and-So", she's "Daddy's Sister." The narrator's maternal grandmother isn't "Grandma" or "Mee-Maw" or anything like that--she's "Daddy's Momma." Her cousin isn't even named; she's just "my cousin" or "our cousin." And, shit, this is such a brilliant artistic decision to amp up the tension and really sink hooks into the reader's heart. This little girl could be anybody. She could be you. She could be your cousin. She could be a neighbor down the street, or a classmate you had in school. She has a terrible, abusive father who is utterly fucking terrifying and completely unhinged, a mother who is meek, enabling and an abuse victim herself, and a sister who needs her protection. This is literally anyone and everyone all at the same time.
This anonymous little girl is young. She's ten, so she has a really limited understanding of her surroundings. And the reader is so deep in this child's head, mundane details are elaborated on in great detail, and truly horrifying events are delivered with a matter-of-factness that borders on brutal. I think the hardest aspect to grapple with is how fear translates from narrator to reader. It's so organic and immersive. It's almost consuming. Because there's little room or capacity for reflection--she's a very sheltered child--as an adult reader, you understand, acutely, what her circumstances are and what they mean. That's where the fear is. You fear for the narrator. You bear witness to her suffering and her terror. In a few horrifying instances, you feel the narrator's fear, but it's mostly a "this child is in danger, holy shit," sort of fear. And the worst part? She's a fictional child and there isn't a damn thing you can do to help her. Her pain is so so real on the page it becomes a tangible ache.
The story is also told in a present tense, so we have no contextual idea of where the story is going. THIS TECHNIQUE. THIS IS WHAT MESSED WITH ME THE MOST--AND YES, THIS WARRANTS EXPRESSION IN ALL CAPS. There were moments in this novel where the number of pages I had left were the only comfort I could find, because there are several, several times where I truly believed the story would abruptly end, and realizing I still had several chapters to go simultaneously filled me with relief and dread. How far will this go? Where can this story possibly lead? Just because it didn't abruptly end in that moment didn't mean it wouldn't abruptly end somewhere else.
So, empathetic writing techniques aside--and really, I need to take a step back because I could go on and on for days trying to understand and express and unpack how this book broke my heart--I was also really impressed by how consistently strong each chapter was. Sometimes a story's momentum or style will flag and some chapters will be stronger or weaker than others, but A House Made of Stars is not one of them. Greene delivers quality work relentlessly from start to finish, and commands the reader to keep pace while demanding the reader to bear witness to this little girl's tragedy.
I always offer a bit of personal anecdote or experience in these reviews, and doing so with this book is really difficult. Mostly because of how closely I identified with the narrator. When I said earlier that this narrator could be anyone, in many instances while reading, it was me. Not only was I completely stunned by the craftsmanship of the writing itself, but how authentically Greene paints the picture of an abused child during the abuse. The nuances of coping mechanisms real children--and the real adults they grow up to be--utilize for the sake of survival are woven seamlessly throughout the novel. There's no attention drawn to it, because the narrator doesn't--and can't--know she's using them (very rarely are people so self-aware), but the perceptive reader can identify them. And the reader who is also an abuse victim can identify with them.
I can only speculate on the author's intent in writing this story, and I won't presume to really know or understand someone else's mind. I can, however, tell you that this book is important. It's important for anyone who loves or knows or cares about someone who's survived similar trauma. It expresses concepts and ideas and experiences that victims sometimes can't. It offers a nameless narrator that is both the reader and not the reader, and is therefore, a safe object onto which someone can project their trauma.
It's so important.
Get it. Read it. Tell others to read it.
Here. Let me make it easier for you.