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The Brittle Star by Davina Langdale

When his mother’s ranch is attacked, sixteen-year-old John Evert is wounded and left to die. But John Evert is no ordinary young man. He’s a frontiersman’s son, a rancher who’s lived his whole life in the untamed Southern California wilderness of 1860.

In a journey that will take him from the bustling young city of Los Angeles to Texas to Missouri and back, to the front lines of the American Civil War and home again, John Evert will learn the cost of vengeance and the price of forgiveness.
After reading Days Without End, something of a palate freshener was required; hence, Langdale’s The Brittle Star, another modern Western, although in this case without the queerness.

Brittle Star, like Days Without End, is an essentially American novel – about the Old West, about the Civil War, about being an outlaw, running from the law, and eventually having a reckoning with it, about belonging; and like Barry’s book, it’s by a non-American writer, in this case the British Davina Langford. However, unlike Barry, Langdale doesn’t write Brittle Star as ‘Murcan; instead, she peppers the book with a light dose of Americana, giving it the feel of a traditional Western, using the language of the Western (including Spanish loan words), and the third person prose has a style that really evokes its events and summons up a feel of the Old West and Western films.

Brittle Star is centred on relationships. Not sexual ones; instead, the familial – and pseudo-familial – relationships of John Evert Burn, first his mother, then his surrogate father, then his found family. Langdale writes with a deep sympathy and empathy about these relationships and makes them really believable; none come immediately and without work, but all are developed over time, and their full extent and nature slowly laid out across the course of the book. The various character relationships are beautifully laid out and developed, and only work because Langdale gets the reader to care about every character; however awful they may later be revealed to be, we care about them, and that cannot be changed by retrospective re-examination.

The plot is a relatively simple, linear one; Brittle Star isn’t doing anything particularly new or interesting there, and indeed, Langdale’s approach to the plot might even be a little flawed. While the novel does follow a linear progression of events that feel like a progression, they also feel, and in some cases are, rather episodic; we see an extended period of time, and then a jump, and another extended period, and what happens in those jumps, or what happens between moments, feels rather empty and undeveloped, as if Langdale simply had no interest in portraying it.

That takes a certain something away from what otherwise flows beautifully in the novel; Brittle Star is really well paced on a chapter and a sentence level, matching its style to its moment really powerfully, such that there are beautiful, long flowing sections describing nature and travel, but Langdale changes style completely when it comes to her more action-centred moments, with really punchy sentences blasting away, and the emotional beats timed well to hit in the middle of either of change up the pace, throw the reader into a new mood. It’s a stylistic quirk that feels rather cinematic: in the middle of the battle, the slow shot of the friend dying, rendered into prose, works to the same powerful effect, while somehow feeling a little less manipulative, in part because the connection to the characters is stronger than in most films.

One thing worth noting is that some descriptions of Brittle Star have suggested that it’s a book about racism. It’s not even really a book about a white person overcoming their racism; Langdale instead writes about John’s racism, which springs from a traumatic event, and how it casts a blight over many relationships in his life, and over his interactions with other people. She also focuses on how he can make exceptions for individuals as he gets to know them, and from them start to generalise out; I can’t speak for how well the narrative works from the perspective of a Native American, the focus of his racism, but Langdale certainly does not condone his bigotry, and indeed the characters around him do not either, and he challenges other bigotries of others (such as towards African Americans). The real problem with the discussion of racism is how simplistic it is; Langdale doesn’t cover societal attitudes, or subconscious prejudices, leading to a rather flat caricature of the complex realities of bigoty.

In the end, The Brittle Star is a rather good Western in the modern mode, evoking the wide open plains and the feel of the period, and with fantastic characters; but Langdale’s attempts to cover such a broad time period hurts the cohesiveness of the novel somewhat, and her discussion of racism is, at times, a little tin-eared.

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