Tim Bowler’s Starseeker, a lot like the music which threads its way through the story, is the sort of novel which lingers, both in the memory and the senses. It’s a beautiful book both in terms of its story and the way it’s written. This isn’t to say there aren’t things about it I don’t entirely love – but I do love most of it with a passion.
The book is the story of Luke Stanton, who lives with his mother Kirsti in a small village in the English countryside. They are mourning the premature death of Luke’s father Matthew a couple of years before, and finding it difficult to work through their own individual senses of grief and loss in order to help one another. Luke, like his late father, is a terrifically gifted musician, in possession of perfect pitch (among other things), and his ability to play the piano like a master is a theme throughout the book. At the outset of the story, he has fallen in with a ‘bad lot’, a bunch of local boys who wish to victimise an older lady living alone in the community. Mrs Little, a woman who rarely leaves her home and who is a stranger to most of the village, has a mysterious and potentially valuable box in her possession, and she has been targeted for burglary by the gang who have co-opted Luke into their midst. To make matters worse, Luke is forced to act as the prime mover in the attack. As well as being a prodigious pianist, he is also a fearless and skilled climber, and the gang need him to climb up Mrs Little’s drainpipes and let them into her house while she’s out.
Luke, for various reasons, has no choice but to comply.
While in Mrs Little’s home, Luke encounters a scared, weeping child locked in an upstairs room. At first he isn’t sure if he’s imagining her, as he’s been hearing the sound of her crying for some time – and in places, and at times, when it would be physically impossible. But this is one of Luke’s strange abilities – he hears. He hears far more than the average person, and it becomes, at times, a scary burden and something which confuses him. Terrified and overcome, he leaves the house empty-handed – which isn’t good enough for Skin, and Speed, and Daz, the other members of the gang. They force him to return at a later date, threatening him with harm if he refuses.
When Luke breaks into Mrs Little’s home again, he thinks he has got away with it. He tries to lie low, and to spend long enough inside to convince Skin that he has searched thoroughly for the box he so desperately wants, but things don’t work out quite as he plans. Mrs Little encounters him – but instead of calling the police, she asks him to do something very strange, and completely unexpected. She wants Luke to help her, and to help her granddaughter Natalie, the child he’d glimpsed on his previous burglary attempt. She doesn’t specify how, or why, and Luke is overwhelmed by the responsibility – not to mention the fear of knowing he hasn’t done what Skin wanted, and that he’s facing severe repercussions for once more coming out of the house without the box.
As the situation with Skin and the gang comes to a horrifying head, so too does the truth behind Mrs Little and her granddaughter. Why is the child so frightened? And what on earth can Luke do to help? On top of these dramatic developments, Luke is dealing with school, and the upcoming concert at which he is expected to perform – his solo recital is set to be the night’s highlight. Then, there’s Miranda, the girl who has asked him to help with her performance at the same concert, not to mention his mother’s growing closeness to Roger Gilmore, a local artist, and – overshadowing and underpinning all of it – his aching grief for his lost father, and the sounds which are threatening to take over his mind completely.
As well as a wonderful plot and fantastic characters, Tim Bowler writes so beautifully that you want to linger over every page. His descriptions of Luke’s music, his visions, the sounds he can hear, the synaesthesia which suffuses his understanding of music (where each note has not only a tone, but a colour, in Luke’s mind), the depth of love and understanding between him and his father, who is a vibrant and vital force in this book despite it all taking place after his death – all of this is a marvel, as are the subtle references to The Tempest which crop up from time to time. There are parts I didn’t love with quite the same level of intensity, centring on Natalie’s story and her relationship with the brittle, suffering and deeply sad Mrs Little. Without giving anything away, I wasn’t quite sure why this story had to exist the way it does. There’s enough poignancy and power in Mrs Little’s story by itself, without needing to bring in her granddaughter and her terrible, painful burden, in my opinion. This isn’t to say that the story as Bowler has written it doesn’t ‘work’; I simply felt it wasn’t necessary, strictly.
But that is my only complaint.
All the things I normally love in a book are here, in spades: great dialogue, fantastic characterisation, emotional honesty, internal logic, love and family and loyalty and bravery beyond measure, friendship and loss and a deep understanding of the beauty which binds the world together, despite all the horror and sorrow that is piled on top of it. This story reminds me how, if we scrape away at the darkness which can seem overwhelming in daily life, the bright wonder and perfection of self-sacrificial, unselfish love is there like a bedrock beneath it all. This book sings, in every sense. It’s wonderful. Go out and get a copy, this minute!