Thursday, 19 July 2012

Books: The Half Life Of Stars by Louise Wener

Filled with some very touching human moments.

The Half Life Of Stars featuring an
attention grabbing opening chapter.

The Half Life Of Stars immediately grabs your attention as it opens by focusing on the Challenger space shuttle disaster as told from the point of view of Daniel (main character Claire’s older brother) and his father, and then goes on to relate their family's own traumatic events on that day.  Once this is dealt with the story then jumps to the present day and the interest level drops off slightly as Daniel goes missing and the focus turns to how his family deal with his disappearance.  Within a few chapters though, Claire makes a significant discovery in her quest to find her brother and things start to get interesting again, although even then it’s not until the second half of the book that it really hits its stride.

The story deals with the sudden and unexpected disappearance of Claire’s older brother Daniel in the run up to Christmas, and when dealing with a serious subject like this, the first half of the book is as you’d expect quite heavy and weighted at times.  Once Claire’s search gains momentum, however, and Claire and her ex-husband meet up with Huey and Tess there is a sudden and welcome injection of humour which was probably necessary to avoid the reader becoming constantly weighed down in doom and gloom.  Tess in particular is a very entertaining and amusing character, and one who would make an excellent lead character for future books by Louise Wener.

From time to time the story flicks back to Claire and her brother’s childhood in Miami and although I don’t normally like this form of story-telling, on this occasion I have to admit it added layers to the story.  Of the books I’ve read which have used this technique, this is one where it was probably necessary and also pulled off very successfully.

As a male reader I haven’t read that many novels from female authors but when I have, I’ve found that some of the male characters can occasionally be unrealistic.  Specifically when it comes to any love related story-lines, I’ve read a few novels where the authors have clearly made the mistake of allowing themselves to believe that ‘the ideal man’ is out there and that some men are exactly how women would like them to be.  In real life, however, men who appear like this are actually most probably patter merchants and nothing like the image they portray.  Louise Wener suffers from no such naivety, however, as the male characters in The Half Life Of Stars are excellently written and very believable.  She clearly has an excellent understanding of how the male mind works and doesn’t make the mistake of confusing how she’d like things to be with how things actually are.

As well as the bigger storyline, The Half Life Of Stars also features some seemingly less significant scenes which are nevertheless filled with really touching human moments of emotion and which all fit in with the overall story in more ways than you initially realise.  The ‘missing person’ story told by the Japanese waitress is perhaps the best example of this, and having spent a couple of months in Japan myself, this segment reminded me perfectly of the Japanese sense of quirkiness, with Louise Wener expertly capturing the 'Japaneseness' of the moment.  The book contains numerous little touches of humanity like this which give the book a warmth which is especially important when you factor in the subject matter and which give you a strong sense of empathy with the characters.

At times some parts of the book are ridiculous and crazy (in particular some of the Huey and Tess story-lines), but yet still believable, and then other parts are warm and deep, and genuinely touching and heart warming, and if you stop to think about it for a moment it seems weird that they’re part of the same book.  But despite this, and despite the fact that the book can be very heavy one minute and then quite amusing the next, it all feels very coherent and never feels disjointed at all.

My biggest criticism of books in general is that a lot of authors often seem to be in a rush to finish things off and as a result you sometimes end up with an ending that doesn’t leave the reader feeling as satisfied as it should.  Maybe some readers prefer a fast conclusion but my personal taste is that I like to see the closing events and aftermath covered in a fair amount of detail, and The Half Life Of Stars delivers on this score.

As the end approached there were hints that made me feel slightly nervous that Louise Wener was perhaps going to opt for an ‘easy’ and unsatisfying ending, but my fears were unmerited as in actual fact I loved the ending and I especially loved the way everything fitted into place and tied together perfectly.  All your questions are answered and you’ll probably find, as I did, that a few seemingly throwaway one sentence comments are explained in more detail and then revealed to be far more significant than you realised at the time.

Overall, after the early lull, this was a very well written book which I enjoyed more and more as the story progressed.  It contains some very touching moments and I suspect it is a book of which Louise Wener is very proud.

Louise Wener's website can be found here:
Louise Wener's Website 

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