Review: Starling by Kirsten Cram

My Quick Take: This novel is self-published and under the radar, and when I closed it after reading the last page, I thought, “This is an awesome book.”


Thanks so much to author Kirsten Cram for a gifted copy of her book in exchange for my unbiased review.

“For one so young, you’d do well to settle yourself on this point: leave behind what narrow minds whisper in airless rooms and hold onto the possibility of wonder with all your might. If there’s any magic to be had in this world, that is where it begins.”
I have so many thoughts and feelings about this book that I find it hard to collect the wispy threads of ideas, connections, themes and contradictions that are contained between Starling’s covers. This is a good thing, believe me. My head feels full, and I love that feeling after I finish a book.

Kirsten Cram is a BC born and raised writer who is currently a clinical counsellor living in the US. Self-published in 2021, I’m surprised Starling hasn’t been snapped up by a publishing house. I know nothing about the book business, but I know what makes me happy to read, and this is it!

It is the story of the friendship between Alice and Remy, two pre-teen kids in dire situations, when she moves to the small backwoods town of Starling with her mom. The best aesthetic that I can come up with is: Roald Dahl plus Grimms fairy tales meets modern-day rural small town. It’s a book that I feel almost shouldn’t work, on a few levels. But it does work, and so very well.

At first I found the language mildly stilted, with much use of passive voice. We are introduced to Alice and Remy, but Cram often refers to them as “the girl” and “the boy” throughout. The prose feels a touch antiquated. But as I read, this became a cadence that suited the old school fairy tale-like story perfectly. It became appropriate, even necessary.

And the weirdness. It is over the top! Almost everyone in Starling is awful. Not just a little bit, but gigantically so. Hugely. Alice and Remy’s schoolmates are disgusting, mean and bad enough, but the adults! Seriously malevolent. This ranges from the narcissistic self-absorption of Alice’s mom to the actively evil teacher Mrs. Kemp, who is so intent on humiliating Alice that her emotional violence astounds.

The setting has a nightmarish fairy tale quality, very eerie. The gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel seems ever present, but not always where you might expect. Remy’s house is leaning, cracked and repaired with duct tape. You feel for him every night that he has to go home to face his slovenly father and violent brother, like he’s being swallowed up into the belly of the beast. The entire description of the town and its inhabitants is so over the top that it comes off as cartoonish, which is why it invites the Dahl comparison.

However, unlike Dahl, Cram doesn’t stop at the cartoonish threats and violence. What makes this a book for mid-teens and up rather than younger children is the realistic threats, those that cannot be couched in hyperbole. There is a seedy edge to this town that places it firmly out of the range of middle-grade readers. Alice’s mom’s boyfriend is a sexual predator and the threat to Alice is all too real. Kids do real harm to each other, and death stalks the town.

Indeed, it’s an often dark novel, with an almost constant sense of foreboding. But Cram superbly contrasts this with a sense of beauty and wonder. The magical connection between Alice and Remy, and their communion with nature, is healing. The natural world is where magic is held in this grim fairy tale; this is where a modicum of safety can be found, and a sense of hope. In Starling, bad things happen all the time, even to good people, but that makes the safe places all the more precious. The few safe adults in the story stand out too.

The old Madame Voisine is thought by all to be a witch, but her magic is kindness, and it is strong. Mere kindness seems like magic to Alice:
“There was something about Madame Voisine’s house that felt like an old dream, perhaps even an enchantment. She could not point to any particular piece of evidence as to why this was so; it was both in the details of the place and in something greater and more elusive altogether. It was in the plants beckoning from their pots and the languorous indifference of the cat. It was in the faint scent of cinnamon and being asked to sit at the table with a cup of cocoa placed before her. It was in the warm shafts of sunlight making cross-sections of the room, and the tone of the woman’s voice that filled the girl like a lost memory until it was all she could do not to put her head down and cry.”
There is a subtle edge of magic in this book, more apt to be found in connection with the kind adult, the close friend, or nature than in metaphysics or religion.

The narrative takes place over a year in Starling. There is some plot but not a ton, but it just wasn’t necessary here. Cram has a way with letting us know the inner workings of a character even in a page or two. One Father Moran showed up at the very end, and for only a few pages, yet I completely know his inner turmoil; he fits right into Starling. He talks to the townsfolk:
“‘No one knows why God allows bad things to happen to good people,’ he began, wincing as his voice cracked mid-sentence, catapulting a full octave into the air. He cleared his throat, stalling for time. For Father Moran, there was always a bleak moment wherein he could not deny the despondence he felt in not having a satisfactory answer for this question and indeed, in his deepening suspicion that one did not exist…and for one inconceivable moment he struggled with the impulse to throw his Bible into the air and take off running for the tree line. Why should he solve for these strangers what he could not make sense of himself?”
The essence of the story is one of a life-saving friendship against the tableau of a town that is a stand-in for childhood trauma. Indeed, for me the novel was about childhood, trauma and the small ways we are saved and healed by connection with the kindness of others and connection to nature. About finding magic in these things and ourselves rather than looking for it in something otherworldly. The ending was heartbreaking but beautiful, and left the door open to hope.

Starling teeters on the edge of so many things that might not have worked in less skillful hands. The cartoonish descriptions, the slightly unusual grammatical choices, the languid plot. But I think it is precisely because Cram leaned into all of this fully that it comes together like literary magic. This book took risks, and it paid off. Bravo. My hope is that this book somehow gets wider attention, because I’d love for others to enjoy the same wonderful reading experience that I did.


P.S. One last quote because I just can't leave it out:


"I'm going to go back and imagine my entire life with you in it." 


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