Alan Warner has described The Stars in the Bright Sky as “Waiting for Godot meets Coronation Street”: ordinary characters, in other words, in a surreal setting. The novel revisits the school girls of The Sopranos four years later. Orla has succumbed to leukaemia, Finn and Kay are at university, Chell and Kylah have moved in together, and Manda has had a son and is working in her sister’s hairdressers and beauty salon, a fact she never tires of reminding her friends. The girls are reunited for a holiday, meeting at Gatwick with the intention of picking up a last minute deal. This lack of a destination may seem to offer them unlimited freedom but, in keeping with the novel’s theme, it instead adds to the sense that they are waiting for choices to happen to them. Into this mix is thrown Finn’s university friend, Ava; upper class, English, rich and sophisticated, she acts both as a foil for explanations, and as another pair of eyes through which we see the girls, and they see themselves.
The first thing to say about this novel is that it is extremely funny. Most of the humour revolves around Manda who is the literary version of a black hole, sucking plot, characters and setting relentlessly towards her. Coarse, ignorant, outspoken, the other characters find her unbearable to the extent that by the end of the novel they have arranged for her to travel first class simply so they do not have to sit with her on the plane. Yet they are also frequently kind to her, agreeing for example, that none of them will go on holiday unless she finds her passport, which she has typically misplaced. The reader is similarly both attracted and repulsed: laughing with her, laughing at her, and cringing in her company. When she vomits her Guinness back into the glass, we feel the same “revulsion and delight” as the girls, nauseated but still admiring the fact it “had not filled the pint completely.” In another Guinness-related incident, when they dare Manda to run from their picnic to a nearby restaurant and drink two pints in ten minutes, we can’t help but share Ava’s view when she sees her returning, “carrying a pint of Guinness in her downhill flight…taking gulps while in swift motion” that:
“She is just…amazing.”
Manda is one of the great Scottish characters, the kind that is both archetypal and real enough to recognise: every group of friends has one. And, as Warner himself has said, “loveable for all her horror.”
The novel is more than a comedy, however. Unfortunately, any discussion of its themes is impossible without revealing aspects of the novel that those who like to become acquainted with the larger arc of the narrative personally may not want to know. (Look away now). In particular, that there is no holiday, the girls never actually flying from the airport. Warner uses the airport in a way that might be described as Ballardian (Warner famously visited Ballard unannounced at his home in Shepperton, having newly arrived in London): the novel is peppered with descriptions of it and discussions about it: the repetitiveness of the retail outlets; the differences between the hotels; the nature of the bars; the different modes of transport around it. A hub of movement, it becomes a symbol of stasis. The girls’ inability to travel is initially caused comedically by Manda’s lost passport; at the end, however, it is prevented more tragically by 9/11. (There is some dispute whether this qualifies as ‘twist’ or ‘shock’ ending.) Clearly, once the reader is half way through the novel, it becomes fairly obvious that either they will never travel or the novel will conclude with them taking off.
Their failure to travel is interesting because it can be read more than one way. On the one hand, it suggests a general inability to control their destiny experienced by many of the characters as individuals. Ava, who initially seems so confident and in control, has a drug addiction and Finn, another of the stronger characters, lives in fear of her relapsing. Most of the others remain trapped in the small town where they were born, Manda also tied by a child she did not want. Her lack of control is best symbolised by her slide down a muddy slope when pushed by Ava (perhaps foreshadowing Manda’s introduction to cocaine later):
“Manda began sliding spectacularly back down the wet hill on her arse. With her acceleration, her upper body immediately flattened, her face up to the metal sky, arms swept back behind, fingers extended in shock as she gathered speed like a toboggan sledge, feet in the air.”
In this reading, 9/11 becomes a global symbol for our inability to control our destiny. However, Manda’s attitude to her misadventure is also interesting. Instead of being angry “the occurrence had been turned into a completely positive event for her,” allowing her, as it does, to be the centre of attention again. Similarly, the girls’ time in the airport is their holiday; at no point are they bored or depressed by it. As with the novel’s title, from the school hymn book staple ‘Away in a Manger’, the message is open to interpretation:
“The stars is still there, even in the daytime. Just you can’t see them.”
Does this suggest the girls, in their small town ignorance, can’t see what’s around them, or that they can see enjoyment whether others can’t, living for the moment and simple pleasures? Some may find 400 pages in Manda’s company too many, and Warner has clearly extended the novel to emphasise their lack of travel, refusing to curtail conversations and letting them flow naturally, but others will find her entrancing – as long as they don’t have to meet her in the flesh.