Originally published: 29 September 2022
Author: Sarah Jane Butler
Published by: Fairlight Books
Page count: 336
Reading dates: 9-14 September 2022
Starling can trap a rabbit, cook a meal from a hedge and hear a bailiff coming from a mile off. All she has ever known is a nomadic existence, travelling in a camper van with Mar, her strong-willed mother. But Mar has cut them off from their community, and this winter they’re stuck in deep mud in a wood, with no fuel, no money and no friends. One morning, without explanation, Mar leaves and doesn’t come back. Utterly alone, Starling must learn to survive without her mother and build a life on her own terms. An offer to stay with an old friend draws her into a more conventional way of living – but can rootless Starling ever find a place where she truly belongs?
Starling and Mar live a life off the land. They have a van which is their home, and they are able to live with what nature provides for them – foraging the land for edible plants, firewood and rabbits. This is the only life 19-year-old Starling has known and while in the past they have lived with other like-minded groups, for a while now it has just been her and Mar.
One day, when Starling returns from collecting supplies, Mar is gone. To begin with Starling assumes she is also foraging but as night falls and Mar doesn’t return, Starling starts to feel uneasy. After a few days with no sign of Mar, Starling decides to head to find Luc, one of the boys she grew up with for several years.
Hiking and catching lifts, eventually she finds him in a small village and is taken in by Luc and his girlfriend Kit who runs the town’s health food shop, sharing their small flat. Starling finds the transition of living in a flat difficult. She works in a local greasy spoon and makes a few friends, but her mind is still on Mar and she can’t settle and is angry for Luc for choosing a more traditional life.
Starling is unlike anything I have read before. I really enjoyed learning about the way Starling and her mum live off the land, only taking what they need and not leaving anything behind. The amount and variety of food Starling is able to find is astonishing and I love when she starts foraging to make food to sell in Kit’s shop. Mar’s way of life is described as a life of freedom, but the author is keen to point out that making a life of freedom is actually hard work – making sure you have enough firewood, enough water, enough food and not leaving anything behind to poison the land.
I couldn’t help but dislike Mar – walking away from Starling without a word, we hear she has a temper and often alienates people who have previously been her friends including Em, Luc’s mother. Starling is also sometimes unlikable, but I could understand her attitude, as she has to decide the life she wants to live now she is away from Mar.
An informative and sometimes emotional read, Butler’s coming-of-age debut is a vivid exploration of nature and of finding a place to belong.
Many thanks to Firelight Books for sending me proof copy.
About the author:
Sarah grew up on the edge of Southborough Common in Kent. She studied languages at university and spent time living in France and Spain. Her short stories (some published under the name SJ Butler) have appeared in literary journals and anthologies, and her story ‘The Swimmer’ was included in Best British Short Stories 2011. She has twice won the 26 Project Writer’s Award, most recently in 2021 for her poem ‘Flow’, and has performed her work in pubs, a festival tent and a disused light vessel. Starling is her debut novel. As well as writing fiction, she is a copywriter and communications consultant. She lives in Sussex with her husband, and has two children.