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Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of The Stars in the Bright Sky, by Alan Warner

The Stars in the Bright Sky, Alan Warner's sixth novel, describes a few days in the lives of six young women friends about to set off on a sort of reunion holiday, a week of sun, sex and stimulants.

Five of the women were together in Warner's novel The Sopranos when, as teenage choristers from a small west coast Scottish town, they were out on the loose and on the razzle. In The Stars in the Bright Sky, the girls are a few years older, in their early twenties. Three of the them are still living and working in the same town. They have cash in their pockets but their lives have hardly expanded, though one now has a baby and the town has a new nightclub. The other two have gone off to university, and one of these has brought along her beautiful, rich, upper-middle class English friend along.

A cultural divide threatens to split those who have left from those who have stayed at home. Manda, a single mother living with her family and now a manageress in her sister's beauty salon, is loud, rude, uneducated, bossy and self-centered, a Guinness-downing chav dreaming of fame and wealth from the lottery and Big Brother. At the other extreme is Ava, the rich English friend who is bright, confident, sophisticated and cosmopolitan. But the old friendships prevent the girls from breaking into two gangs. For all her obnoxiousness, Manda is often the pin that holds the group together, even when it is by uniting the others in their annoyance with her.

Though the story concerns six young women intent on every form of available experience and preferably to excess, this is not chic lit; the author is, after all, a male in his mid-forties. But nor is it fogey lit. There is a certain amount of tut-tutting in the book, but none of it comes from Alan Warner.

The events of the plot are played out in the sterile, commercialised shops, pubs, eateries and hotels of Gatwick Airport, and though for most of the story the characters text, argue, shop, lust and drink, the book says at least as much about how they navigate their way through a culture of class divides, global consumerism, celebrity, of instant gratification and its consequences.

One of the wonders of the book is that Alan Warner manages to allow the reader a degree of affection for the characters - even Manda - no matter how dreadfully they behave, and one of the most touching things about the novel is the charity and compassion that these young women reveal for each other.

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