Thursday, July 27, 2023

Review: Starling House, by Alix E Harrow

Look, just do what the nice sentient haunted house wants.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I loved this book — I loved it so, so much. I stayed up well after 3am to finish it, and I can’t remember the last time I did that. This book is great: moody, tender, dark, touching, and fierce. There is a sentient house. There are monsters. And, crucially, it ends well. To be honest, that’s really all I feel you need in order to know whether you want to read it. If the moods and features I just listed strike your fancy, then quite reading this review and just go read the book.

If, however, you want to know more about why I loved it so much, well, I won’t object to your continued attention. It’s about Opal, a high school dropout in her mid-twenties who’s spent the last decade looking after her little brother Jasper following the death of their mother. Opal is smart and unscrupulous and fiercely loyal to her family — her dead mother's memory, Jasper’s future — and she's determined that the miserable town of Eden where she was born and where her mother died will not get the best of her. She dropped out of high school to work dead-end jobs, and she's not above shoplifting school supplies or sticking her hand in the cash register in times of need. Her goals are clear: to get Jasper a spot at a boarding school up north, a wealthy place for wealthy people, where his whip-smart intellect will have the opportunity to build him a future outside of Eden. Because he and Opal have no future in Eden.

In truth, no one has a future in Eden. The town is blighted, cursed. Economically it is oppressed by the wealthy Gravely family, who own the industry that poisons the town and employs the people, without ever actually spending more than a day or two within the town limits. But beyond the mundane, it seems to suffer incredible bad luck: people die in freak accidents, like the one that killed Opal and Jasper's mother; buildings catch fire; and floods and catastrophic environmental disasters crop up at much higher rates than seem plausible by chance alone.

This bad luck is somehow tied up with the history of Starling House, a mysterious looming hulk that holds itself apart from the rest of Eden. Arthur Starling, the current Warden of Starling House, knows its secrets, but has no interest in telling them to anyone — least of all the reader — because he also works for a single goal: to be the last Warden of Starling House. Whatever responsibility that position entails, he wants to end it forever, not for his own good, but to spare whoever would hold the role after him from that terrible burden. His goal, although more shadowy, mirrors Opal’s: They are both fixated on building a future that will benefit someone else, even if they must burn themselves out doing it.

Naturally, these two cross paths. Starling House — which, by the way, is sentient, and has strong opinions, and so immediately won my heart because I am a complete sucker for sentient inanimate objects — decides that it rather likes Opal, and would like to have her around. It pulls her in, attracts her magnetically to its gates, arranges for Arthur to meet her there. And because Arthur is not quite as strong, brooding, and solitary a hero as he would like to be, he offers Opal a job as housekeeper. Starling House is a wreck, Arthur has money, and Opal needs money, so she takes the job. And thus, the pieces are in place for Opal to discover the secrets of Starling House, the reasons for Eden’s blighted luck, the skullduggery at the heart of it all, and what she and Arthur can do to make it better.

I’m being deliberately vague about the details here, because part of the brilliance of this book relates to the way the themes and revelations wind around each other like smoke. Stories and legends about the history of Starling House appear in multiple forms: in the official history propagated by the Gravely family, in the unofficial oral histories uncovered by the town librarian, in a picture book that was a formative part of Opal’s childhood, and in the records kept in Starling house itself. Each time we hear the story, we spiral a little closer to the truth underlying it all, and the truth resonates with the modern day events in deft, elegant details. The name of the school where Opal wants to send Jasper is the same as the name of a founding Gravely’s horse; a Gravely who died under mysterious circumstances fell off a bridge into the river in the same way Opal’s mother did the night she died. The interweaving of past with present is beautifully done.

Opal, too, is a wonderful main character. Life is hard in Eden, and Opal has become hard in turn: she keeps a clear bright line in her head between needs and wants; she knows how to smile and charm people when that is the only tool in her toolkit; she is keenly aware to the details of self-presentation that make her seem harmless, or trustworthy, or frivolous, or whatever characteristic will get her what she needs from an interaction. She lies freely and easily to everyone — even to Jasper. He objects to this at one point: ‘[Lying] is for everybody else. Not for family.’ But Opal reflects
The innocence of it makes me want to laugh, or maybe cry. The biggest lies are always for the ones you love the most. I’ll take care of you. It’ll be fine. Everything’s okay.
Her narrative is full of these sharp observations. Because she is so skilled at manipulation herself, she recognizes it when people try to pull it on her:
[Baine] smiles some more. It’s a well-practiced expression, an efficient arrangement of muscles meant to make me smile back. It’s alright, this smile says. You can trust me. The hair prickles on the backs of my hands.
And when her bright line between want and need falters sometimes, and she finds herself wishing for things, the hunger of that want surprises her: Dreams are just like stray cats. If you don’t feed them they get lean and clever and sharp-clawed, and come for the jugular when you least expect it.

Despite its starting point in such a grim place, this book's emotional trajectory is a heartening journey to show how Opal can, in fact, begin to start giving her trust and loyalty to people other than Jasper. It starts with Starling House, which responds so eagerly to her attention that she finds herself looking for tasks to continue her employment, unwilling to desert it after she’s cleaned and repaired the most pressing deficits. Perhaps because Arthur is such an extension of Starling House, Opal also grows closer to him, recognizing in him an outsider who shares a crushing burden, even if — for all her snooping — she can’t quite figure out what it is.

But as the book progresses, we see Opal realizing that there are other people in her life that she can trust. The proprietor of the motel where she lives, the town librarian, the family of Jasper’s best friend — they all turn out to have hidden kindness to them that Opal could not see, single-minded and hardened as she has been forced to be by her single-minded, hard life. She begins to open up, to discover that she doesn’t always need to protect herself, to project an image of self-sufficiency when she is not, truly, self-sufficient. On any other night I’d lie to her, Opal thinks at one point, when the librarian offers her a chance to leave Eden, tell her I’m saving up money, dreaming up some grand future. But maybe telling the truth is like any other bad habit, which gets harder to quite the more you do it.

The mood of this book is bleak, but the journey is about finding trust, and warmth, building a home for yourself, and lessening burdens by sharing them. It is beautiful, and comforting. Please give yourself the gift of reading it.



Nerd coefficient: 8/10, well worth your time and attention
  • Sentient house
  • Intertwining myth, story, and oral history
  • Grim, loyal people determined not to let history repeat itself
CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. She is on mastodon at

Reference: Harrow, Alix E. Starling House. [Tor Books, 2023].