Every night at dusk the starlings flock around Brighton like a great black wave, swarming through the sky, swooping around, over and under at lightening speed, yet miraculously never crashing into each other. Erinna Mettler’s first novel, Starlings, brilliantly connects the birds to the people of the city, as the stories within start off miles apart and gradually swoop closer and closer. The main difference is the humans are not so adept at avoiding bumps and crashes.
She lay there, listening to her wheezing breath, trying to figure out if she really needed to put herself through the trauma of moving or if she could sleep, just a little longer, to ease the pain. Then she heard it – a sound so clear and beautiful she thought she’d imagined it – a single constant note, high-pitched, otherworldly. Others followed it, a melodious warble, a flickering scale of perfect chirps and whistles, building note for note into a crescendo of harmonious non-human voices. The dawn chorus.
All of Brighton is here, the jazz funk yummy mummies, the dealer with his pit-bull and the stoner rich kids who make his fortune. Yet the story also moves through the generations, drawing in the history from the Booth Museum’s Victorian collectors to the 60s beach-side battles between mods and rockers. Along the way Mettler also deftly handles the storms the gay community has weathered, from the persecution of Keith by a vindictive police officer to Gary planning to ask his wayward fella Giuseppe to marry him. She also offers a pretty credible recreation of the setting of the West Pier fire…
There is much to enjoy here for anyone who has spent any time in the city and who knows how it can feel large and impersonal and yet also like a small village. In the same way friend groups link and often overlap, so that sometimes it seems everyone knows everyone and their business, so characters are at one time the centre of the tale and later barely glimpsed on the edge of someone else’s. Central to many of the stories are neighbours Andy, a paedophile who from the slow revealing of his own tortured past becomes more than a one-dimensional note of evil and May, a woman who has lived her whole life without luck, until the final chapters where she is able to perform heroics that belie her little old lady’s frame.
Upstairs in her flat, May watches the starlings flit around the Pier. She loves these birds in particular, probably because they’re not here for long. They stay for a few weeks brightening the skies and then they’re off to wherever they go to live their exciting foreign lives. Nightly she watches their dance from her window, she thinks it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen and her heart is warmed by their beauty. After all the things that have happened to her – and all the things that should have happened to her but didn’t – she is amazed that there are still such things in the world to make her smile.
This is a cracking first novel, I really enjoyed it and hope there will be many more to come. Essential reading for anyone who enjoys good storytelling, whether or not they know and love Brighton!