Starling House is a Modern Fairy Tale Done Right

Starling House, Alix E. Harrow, Tor

Publication Date: October 3, 2023

Eden, Kentucky, the setting of Alix E. Harrow’s low-gothic fantasy, Starling House, is the sort of place that often lies forgotten in America, a festering wound of old coal mines, underfunded schools, and polluted drinking water. The book’s twenty-six-year-old protagonist, Opal, spends much of the opening similarly impoverished and neglected. After being orphaned as a teenager, she has been largely on her own, scrabbling together ways to survive. Her driving purpose in life is caring for her much younger brother and working on a plan to get him out of the dead end that is Eden.

“Dreams aren’t for people like me,” Opal tells the reader early on. “People like me have to make two lists: what they need and what they want. You keep the first list short, if you’re smart, and you burn the second one.”

But still, Opal dreams. She dreams of the titular house specifically, a nineteenth-century Gothic mansion built by Eleanor Starling, the eccentric author of a terrifying children’s book that Opal was obsessed with as a child. The house’s latest heir, Arthur Starling, is a recluse with a mysterious wants and needs list of his own. When a not-so-chance encounter leads to him offering Opal a well-paying housekeeping job at Starling House, she leaps at the chance, seeing both an easier way to fund her brother’s way out of town and a means of discovering more about the house she’s dreamed of since childhood. At first, she has little interest in Arthur, but this changes as she learns more about the house itself and how he has found himself its sole occupant.

There is a thread of Beauty and the Beast present–the house is magical, capable of setting out its own dinnerware–and Arthur is a brooding, not-conventionally-attractive love interest–but Harrow slaps a refreshingly healthy coat of paint on this tale as old as time. There is no Stockholm Syndrome here, and while Arthur is inwardly tortured enough to be compelling, it does not come at the expense of his ability to treat Opal well and with respect throughout the novel.

This is no mere Beauty and the Beast retelling, though. While that romantic thread winds through this gothic fairy tale, Harrow is much more interested in repressed generational trauma, the kind that haunts individual families, but also communities at large, and the stories people tell to explain or hide that trauma. Eden has suffered more tragedies than most comparably-sized towns, with fires, floods, accidents, and even illnesses occurring at two or three times the national average. Opal herself has been on the edge of many accidents, including the car crash that killed her mother, and she constantly worries that her brother’s severe asthma attacks will turn lethal. For years, she chalked these things up to simple bad luck, but after she begins working for Arthur, she learns that something more sinister and supernatural is at play. As she digs deeper into Starling House’s past, she finds contradictory, overlapping histories, often designed to hide the racial injustices and gender-based violence committed by Eden’s benefactors, which the town has long been invested in sweeping under the rug. Something within Starling House seeks to punish the town for these sins and Opal and Arthur have to find a way to ensure no more innocent people get caught in the crossfire.

One of the novel’s five interior illustrations by artist Rovina Kai

That Harrow set her novel in Kentucky specifically is no accident. She grew up there, though initially shied away from writing about it. “One of the reasons that I had found that difficult to do before,” she told NPR, “is because I find it to be a place of very mixed experiences that I love very, very, very much, and which has just an incredible violence and terror to it.” This feeling comes through clearly in Opal’s complex relationship with her town. On the one hand, she hates it–first for ignoring her, later for its complicity in a multitude of injustices–but it is also not a monolith. There are good people living in Eden–people who look out for her even if she doesn’t realize it at first.

These real-world issues lie at the heart of the novel; the fantasy elements remain in the background for much of its pagecount, rendered with a fairy tale quality and sometimes bordering more on magical realism. Mostly, this works, and when these elements are on display, they pop with teeth and vigor. Toward the end of the novel, Harrow offers an explanation for the presence of these phenomena in an otherwise real-world setting, but there are some unfortunate gaps she doesn’t completely address–such as the level of Starling House’s sentience and why it has developed the motivations it has.

There is much to admire thematically in Starling House, but it arguably shines most in its sumptuous, toothy prose. If it threatens to do the literary equivalent of chewing the scenery at times, that’s part of the fun, albeit incongruous coming from the first person narration of high school dropout Opal. But perhaps that’s the point. Opal is never quite entirely the callous grifter and screw-up she tries to sell to herself and the reader; part of the joy of her journey is her coming to that realization. She is not a stereotype. Indeed, Harrow, likely as a result of her lived experiences, does a masterful job of ensuring that none of her Southern characters feel like caricatures. Still, the prose feels more suited to third person in general and thus finds a more organic fit in the point of view Harrow uses for Arthur, a nice shift to keep his perspective as deuteragonist separate from Opal’s. There are clever footnotes too, though Harrow grows curiously disinterested in using them in the back half of the novel, which is a shame.

By the double epilogue conclusion, Harrow has grappled admirably with issues of race, class, and gender, the kinds of lies we tell to protect ourselves and others, the complicity of silence in the face of injustice, and how judgment can be righteous, but also cruel and rife with the same collateral damage it damns in the first place. But for how nuanced and multi-faceted these themes are, neither of the book’s two epilogues (one curiously placed after the acknowledgments) manage to evoke the same level of complexity and come off a bit pat as a result. The second epilogue in particular feels self-indulgent, hitting the reader over the head with a more detailed, almost saccharine ending that was better off implied.

Still, Starling House is largely a tremendous, feminist read, filled with beautiful writing and timely themes of oppression, reckoning, and the truths we cannot shy away from when recounting our histories.

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