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Star-Shot

Mary-Ann Constantine
ISBN-13: 
9781781722640
Publication Date: 
Thursday, October 15, 2015
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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.’ – Wales Arts Review

 

Part fable, part mystery, Star-Shot is a stylish debut novel set in and around Cardiff's National Museum in a time that is almost, but not quite, our own. As their paths cross in a circumscribed world of benches, parks and galleries, a handful of characters reveal their stories of obsession, loss and recovery, creating a fragile network of relationships which will help to resist the inexorable channels of silence eating into the city. 

A brittle young woman sits on a bench in Gorsedd park, conscious of the powerful building behind her; a tall man carries a box full of a strange organic substance up the entrance steps; a young father explains the formation of stars to his tiny son.  As university researchers try to map and understand  the destructive silence snaking around them, it becomes clear that the linked lives of these and other marginal characters offer ways of countering its effects. Poignant and humorous, Star-Shot is an exploration of how objects and images can focus our grief and desire; it is also a meditation on the regenerative power of garden ponds, and the cosmic significance of frogs.

Beautifully illustrated with woodcut-style motifs by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, this is a subtle urban novel with a supernatural twist.

REVIEWS

Review by Emma Schofield, Wales Arts Review

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

‘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.

Helen Sandler, Planet

Friday, August 5, 2016

Described as 'part fable, part mystery' this is a novel that raises questions from the start. Intrigued questions, such as 'Is this woman in love with a building?' And bemused ones, such as, 'Which of the half-dozen narrative voices is this now?'

The book is arranged in numbered sections of two or three pages, recalling both the author's previous experience in writing short stories and the fragmented ways in which people now read. It opens with Myra, who is indeed, in love with a building - Cardiff's National Museum. It continues with Theo, arriving at the museum with a gelatinous specimen that may be the 'star-shot' of the title; then Dan, taking his little son out in his pushchair, past 'cats and blossom and postmen'. Along with university researcher Luke and his professor, these are most of our main characters, although it takes a little while to piece the cast list together from the clues on offer.

We learn that Dan is a widowed father, facing homelessness; Theo a stealth pond-digger, whose elderly mother has demenia an a talent for visionar art. Myra is diagnosed with cancer and meets Lina, a refugee who cleans at the hospital.

Like her characters, Mary-Ann Constantine is not afraid to experiment. She approaches things sideways or holds them up gauze. She introduces a statue, a citation, a dream, leaving us to guess its significance or await further instruction. The technique can be both tantalising andfrustrating, but it weaves a web.

Meanwhile, Constantine writes beautifully about human emotions. Here is Myra (her name an anagram of the author's), missing the hospital visits she had been enjoying from her new acquaintance, Theo:

It 'His absence defeats her. Ten, Eleven days in, it has become uninterpretable, and all she can do is retract like a creature in a shell, for protection.' 

It would have been a pleasure to read more the emotional narrative throughout, but this description of the pain of absence casts light on the wider theme of disconnectedness. We seem to be located in the near future in a Cardiff that is approaching dystopia. Some aspects of this time and place are all too believable: you need a swipe ard to gain access to the park, for instance. Others are fantastical. What is the silence that descends in patches on public space, beginning on the steps of the museum, making conversation impossible,turning the air cold, Causing electrical interference?

The professor and his team set up a project to map and investigate these silences. They interview people sitting on park benches, as those benches also grow cold. But greater powers are at work. The university is in thrall to commercial forces and academic freedom is all but lost; the historic castle is under threat. Casting about for a more creative approach, the professor consults an old flame, a wise deaf doyenne of aerial dance, who brings in her troupe to perform their magic.

It never becomes quite clear what is creating the 'interference', only that it must be fought. One interpretation is that it is a metaphor for the way the dominant agenda destroys communitiesa and undermines everyday language. 

Ultimately Star-Shot holds out the hope that our connections to each other, and to learning, the 

arts and the earth can make a difference. As the characters dig a moat n the dead of night or enjoy the bilingual chat in a village shop, as they fall in love without quite saying so, they defy interference.    

Review by Mary Mayfield, Our Book Reviews Online

Friday, April 1, 2016

 

Something strange is happening in the centre of Cardiff - as people move around the city, particularly close to the Museum, they are encountering silent spaces where all noise is suddenly cut off. A handful of people seem more aware of the phenomenon than others - Myra, who feels some strange, almost physical, attraction to the museum; Theo, an expert on ponds and the life found in them, who carries out 'guerilla-gardening' style pond installations; single-parent Dan struggling with the loneliness of bringing up his son; Luke carrying out a study into the use of public benches across the city, and his supervising professor - the first to spot the extant of these silent patches and their alarming growth. As the paths and lives of these five cross and connect, the puzzle of the silence grows, and initiatives are put it place to fight it but nothing seems to stop its spread.

  
Set in a off-skew Cardiff, Star-Shot is a fable-like novel that speaks, to me at least, of the dangers of wiping out nature through the spread of concrete urban centres, and of the isolation of individuals in our high pressure, work-obsessed modern society. These ideas are explored, not through highly-moralistic rhetoric, but through the lives of a small group of characters, most of them rootless in the city, cut-off in some way from family and friends, struggling to form new relationships. As the story evolves, we learn more about their backgrounds, how in various ways they are damaged or weighed down by their past. The exception is Theo, the only one who lives outside the city, who you might even say 'lives and breathes' nature. Everything in his life revolves around ponds; employed during the day by corporations and councils to install them as one of their 'green' credentials, and sneaking out at night making wildlife havens on waste ground, with ponds and plants. It seems like he is the one who holds the key - not only to halting the spread of 'silence' but to bringing the others together.

After a short initial confusion, as the characters were introduced in quick succession, I found the story taking off and holding me. It's not your average 'airport' or 'beach' read but an interesting, thought-provoking comment on modern life, which, although I enjoyed it this time, I'd like to re-read in the not too distant future, knowing how the complexities of the plot work round each other.

Seren have previously published a collection of the author's short stories, All The Souls, but this is Mary-Ann Constantine's first full-length novel.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 

Review by Claire Pickard, New Welsh Review

Monday, February 1, 2016

The opening sentence of Mary-Ann Constantine’s debut novel sets the tone for the story that is to follow. The reader is presented with the apparently ordinary image of a red-haired woman tying up her hair. The second half of the sentence undercuts this normality completely. We learn that the woman is performing this action so that her neck can be observed, not by a person, but by a building. The strangeness of this encounter remains unexplained – not just at this moment, but ultimately throughout the novel. Yet, as the story unfolds, it is not the sense of strangeness, but rather the desire for connection, that comes to predominate. For, despite the elements of the fantastical that appear in the novel, Star-shot is ultimately a book about relationships – albeit ones that are sometimes outside of the ordinary.

The key location in the novel, the point around which all relationships and significant plot developments revolve, is the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. This building – the same one that is so oddly animate in the book’s opening sentence – serves as a magnet to which a series of seemingly disparate characters are attracted. Constantine uses a multi-narrative structure to draw these separate strands together into a single whole. In other hands, such a device might have appeared contrived. Yet, one of Constantine’s great strengths is her delicacy in conveying the emotions and cross-currents which make up human relationships. The central conceit of overlapping urban lives that must inevitably influence one another is thus more than a means to an end. Through this conceit, Constantine underlines the importance of such connections whilst also embodying them through the very form of her novel.

The plot of Star-shot unfolds in a city that is identified as Cardiff. Yet, although the city is recognisable to a reader who is familiar with the modern day capital, it is also deliberately and disconcertingly strange. Constantine’s Cardiff is one through which an inexplicable, and suffocating, silence is spreading. The novel traces the attempt to understand and combat this silence. Many of the characters who become involved in this attempt have experienced some form of loss. Dan is a single parent, raising his son Teddy after the death of his wife, Jane. Myra has lost her health and her fertility. Lina, a Syrian refugee, has lost her family, her homeland and her profession. Theo has lost his brother, a photographer, also in Syria, and is losing his mother to a form of dementia. It is Theo who is in many ways the emotional centre of the novel and who draws the other characters together. For he is a sort of guerrilla-conservationist, establishing ponds and reserves in urban areas. Gradually, the other characters become involved in this work alongside their attempt to dispel the silence.

The nature of the silence itself and the questions as to who, or what, is causing it, remain unanswered. Yet the centrality of Theo’s character makes it hard to avoid the implication that Star-shot is at least in part an ecological fable. Theo rescues not just habitats but also people – the individuals marked by loss who he transforms into a community. The beautiful wood-cut motifs of plants and birds by Clive Hicks-Jenkins that appear throughout the text further emphasise the importance of such organic life forms and our potential, collective loss of them. Every aspect of the novel, from its focus on relationships and its structural echoes of the interdependencies of eco-systems, thus leads the reader back to the importance of connection. Constantine shows that these connections – whether between individuals or between people and their environment – are often far from easy. Yet, despite this, the novel is imbued with a profound optimism. It may open with the search for an impossible connection, but it ends with at least the promise of co-operation and regeneration.

Claire Pickard completed a doctorate on Literary Jacobitism and gender at Oxford in 2006, after which she took an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa. She lives just north of Aberystwyth.

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