Alan Warner’s narrative lurch

There are a couple of fantastic twists and revelations in Alan Warner’s new novel, The Stars In The Bright Sky – reviewed by me here in The Independent – but the one I felt able to give away in writing about it (other reviewers were less discreet) was that the six “young women” arriving at Gatwick for a cheap last-minute holiday to somewhere hot never actually leave the airport. (Not strictly true: they have a day out to Hever Castle, but they do reach the end of a novel without getting on a plane.)

In fact, the strange warping of the narrative momentum was one of the great pleasures of the book. Warner spends the first 60 pages meticulously tracking the girls from the airport bus to their hotel, down to the bar, back up to their rooms to sleep, up in the morning and down to the check-in queue, and reading this, fun though it is, you really worry that, when the proper stuff of the story begins – the week’s drinking and shagging in Magaluf – he’s going to have to race through it at a perfunctory pace.

So the revelation that one of the “young women” has lost her passport, they can’t make their plane and must hang around in the terminal is, perversely, as satisfying as that moment when a plane leaves the tarmac and you realise you’re in the air. There’s a wobble in the tummy, a moment of panic as your body tells you what is happening isn’t right, and then the moment passes, you look out of the window at the ground receding, and your brain tells you, it’s okay, you’re in safe hands, someone is actually flying this thing.

It’s something I cherish in a book – the narrative lurch or diversion that takes you away from where you think you were heading, into unknown territory. It’s there in James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere (devastating plot twist), and Karl O Knausgaard’s A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven (complete pulling of the rug from under its own narrative). In the case of The Stars In The Bright Sky it’s weirder still, because Warner doesn’t take you to somewhere new, but performs a startling U-turn back into an already delineated territory that you thought you were done with, an exit zone that becomes a destination. It’s like a pop song that goes to the bridge, setting you up for a significant chord change, then, unsettlingly, settles back into the verse, its familiar chord progression somehow made strange by its persistence.

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