‘Where we are is among the stars’
Star Shot is one of those mysterious novels which slowly takes hold of you, turns you on your head, spins you around and makes you begin to question the world around you. Taking place in a not-too-distant future version of Cardiff, the setting for the novel will seem both familiar and unfamiliar to those who know the city well.
The novel is the debut from academic and acclaimed short story writer, Mary-Ann Constantine and it has a distinctly mystical feel that will appeal to fans of magical realism. The story begins with a curious university researcher plotting the use of benches around the city centre as part of a project, all the while becoming more entangled in the lives of the characters he meets along the way. Attention is focused on the National Museum, around which a chilly wall of silence seems to have sprung up, driving back visitors to the Museum and making passers-by feel intensely unwelcome. As the narrative unfolds we become increasingly aware of the physical and mental effects of this mysterious wave of silence and the challenges faced by the characters who seek to dispel it.
The narrative switches perspective between four main characters, Theo, Myra, Luke and Dan, all of whom bring their own personal story to the text. It took me a while to get used to each of the voices, but they soon develop their own identity and become more recognisable to the reader as the novel progresses. While each short section appears to follow a similar structure, there are subtle differences between the ways each character recounts their part in the story, all of which draws you in to their world. I found the story of scientist Dan particularly poignant, with scenes of a struggling single-father juxtaposed against the tender moments where he tries to build a bond between himself and his young son by planning to teach him about stars and the universe.
There is a lot happening in the novel and the cast of characters, at times, stretches quite wide. Concentrate on the plot and allow yourself to be drawn into this mysterious world, however, and the array of characters become a believable part of Constantine’s version of Cardiff, mirroring the eclectic face of the city itself. At one point Dan asserts that ‘stars dissolve if you look at them directly’, adding that the trick is a ‘way of half-looking that captures their figurative presence’. Apply the same approach of half-looking to the backdrop of characters in Star Shot and you will see that they fade in and out of the narrative with ease and fluidity, never quite allowing us to fully understand them.
This technique may be part of Constantine’s plan to disconcert us, leaving us to experience a glimmer of the sense of confusion the characters feel as they try to combat the seemingly unbreakable wall of silence. Nevertheless, there are moments of realism within the novel which will be more familiar to readers. Myra’s struggle with ill health provides a sobering counterpoint to the mystical events around the museum, with her thoughts often occupied with ‘awkwardly timed’ hospital appointments and a restless fear about her future. Despite the intensity of this storyline, the sense of uncertainty connects well to the sense of displacement surrounding the National Museum, forging a curious bond between woman and building.
Later on the novel does venture, briefly, beyond its Cardiff setting, branching out to an unspecified rural point in the Welsh countryside. Although we’re left to wonder about the exact location of these countryside scenes, they have a distinctly West Wales feel, perhaps inspired by Constantine’s own life in the area. While the rural surroundings are in sharp contrast with those in much of the novel, the anonymous nature of the hills and fields which the characters encounter further heightens the sense of dislocation which prevails throughout Star Shot.
This is an intriguing and highly original debut which may easily continue to haunt you, long after you’ve finished the last page. Keep your mind wide open, take a deep breath and allow yourself to be drawn into this alternate version of Wales’ capital city.