In this enlightened age, much has been said regarding cultural misappropriation. Writing about another culture comes with a raft of issues, not the least of which is authenticity. In The Brittle Star Davina Langdale presents the reader with a conundrum: the book is excellently and meticulously researched, but is it authentic? Can an author from England capture the feel of the American west? Can anyone who has not personally experienced the sights, the sounds and the smells bring them home to an international audience?
Some of the best western authors managed to avoid the west entirely. The king of western pulp, Max Brand (aka Frederick Faust), never ventured further into the desert than the Hollywood lot in which he worked, and it never held him back. Neither does it hold back Langdale, who has crafted a sharp, witty and enjoyable novel from some very basic (almost clichéd) components.
The plot is an oldie but a goodie, sweeping majestically across 350 or so pages in a manner that would make John Ford proud. John Evert Burn sets out to rescue his mother, who was captured in a raid by the Paiute Nation, in a scenario straight off Ford’s classic, The Searchers. This is John Evert, however, not John Wayne, and while the search for his mother occupies much of his mind it does not have much call on his time.
After the raid we see him fighting his dastardly neighbour for control of the remains of the ranch, getting a job as a journalist in a Los Angeles newspaper, becoming a bounty hunter/Texas Ranger’s assistant, and finally enlisting in the cavalry to fight for the Union in the Civil War. He falls in love along the way and overcomes the racism his extraordinary ordeal had instilled in him. Older and wiser, John Evert returns to Southern California to pick up the now 5-year-old trail, and things eventually come to a head.
There can be little doubt events like this happened. Langdale’s descriptions of the Civil War and the lifestyle of the time are detailed and rich. However, her prose seems one step removed from the action, keeping the reader in the role of observer rather than participant. More than once the book feels like something by Cormac McCarthy, as Langdale displays a disingenuous simplicity, skilfully leading the reader to what she wishes them to see, using the unreliability of narrator John Evert to good effect. On her website Langdale cites McCarthy as a large influence on the book.
But this distance, this telling-once-removed, makes the book harder work than it should be. While it is not necessary to totally immerse the reader in sensory stimuli, Langdale’s west seems somehow sterile and remote: not a location that would have a real effect on the plot and characters. The reader must either imagine the sights, sounds and smells of antebellum Los Angeles, or imagine they simply do not have an impact on the story. This leaves poor John Evert high and dry, neither a relatable nor a pitiable character, but rather just someone for the reader to follow as he mooches through the pages.
The action on the other hand is fast and furious, with John Evert careening from one ill-advised situation to another while in the tow of Texas Ranger Bill, and the reader is not given a moment to sit back and ponder what is missing.
The book then is fun, but not deep, a morality tale that entertains. In this respect it may just be the archetypal western.
P.S. The Brittle Star of the title? Absolutely no idea. Could be anything.
Reviewed by D C White
Rating out of 10: 7