Review: When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain

“When the Stars Go Dark” has all the makings of a tidy police procedural, but the mechanics of Anna Hart’s investigation into a missing teenager serve merely as the scaffolding for a shrewd examination into the detective’s devastated psyche. This is a sombre ballad about a traumatised woman’s dedication to finding justice for the missing and the dead, and why it has come at the expense of everything else. 

Hart is a detective from San Francisco who has recently experienced a personal tragedy. Haunted by this, and the many horrors she has encountered throughout her career as a missing persons expert, she escapes to her childhood home of Mendocino in North California, and is quickly drawn into the case of a missing girl named Cameron Curtis. 

Mendocino is a place of discordant emotions for Hart. She fondly remembers the foster family who provided her love and safety, and taught her survival skills. But this is punctured by the melancholy of the disappearance of a close friend in 1972; eerily similar to the present day mystery. 

When two other girls are abducted shortly after Cameron, I was sure McLain was pivoting towards a classic hunt for a serial killer. If this was Connelly, Sandford or Crais, I’d expect no less. They are writers who excel working within the conventions of the genre. 

But McLain isn’t a crime writer. Not by trade, at least.  She knows she owes readers a resolution, and this side of “When the Stars Go Dark” — its mystery — is grippingly and confidently realised. But it never pulls focus from her narrative’s true intention, which is its study of character. Here, McLain masterfully combines the classic components of the crime novel with a  forensic excavation of her detective, and what it takes to come back from the brink when everything seems lost. 

While most crime fiction is content to solve its crime and move its detectives onto their next case, McLain reminds us they are human. Fallible, anguished, and in search of redemption — just like everybody else.

Publisher: Ballantine
Publish Date: April 13, 2021
Pages: 384
ISBN: 9780593237892

Review: Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun coverBeryl Markham was a remarkable woman, eminently worthy of celebration and eternal commemoration. An aviation pioneer, she was the first woman to successfully fly across the Atlantic from east to west, thereby cementing her place in history. Before Paula McLain’s novel, Circling the Sun, I’d never heard of her; afterwards, I immediately began searching for her memoir, West With the Night. Because, though McLain’s novel is magnificent, it barely scratches the surface of Markham’s many achievements.

Rather than have her record-breaking flight be the novel’s focus, it bookends McLain’s story. The author leads the reader to that daring feat, delving back into Markham’s childhood, and progression into adulthood; a journey punctuated by misadventures, scandals, broken-hearts, and an unparalleled determination to mould something more out of life; to break the shackles society had latched around her. Her solo flight across the Atlantic is worthy of aplomb; her refusal to accept the societal constraints and gender assumptions of the day should be legendary.

Circling the Sun begins in 1904 when Beryl Cutterbuck and her family leave England for Kenya. While her mother isn’t suited to life in Africa, and very quickly returns to London, Beryl finds harmony in the landscape, and remains with her father, whose horsemanship seeps into her Beryl’s DNA. Indeed, though her solo flight is her highlighted achievement, Markham was Kenya’s first female horse trainer, and a highly-regarded one at that.

Beryl’s life boasts the narrative of a soap opera, and a lesser-skilled author might lose themselves in the twists and turns of her personal life. But McLain, utilizing a first-person perspective, keeps these events grounded and rooted in pure, undulated human emotion. Some of Beryl’s choices are questionable, but they are always understandable, and McLain provides great insight into one of history’s pioneering women.

Circling the Sun is an exquisite novel, compelling and memorable, and another jewel in Paula McLain’s crown. It is, without question, one of 2015’s best reads.

ISBN: 9781844088294
Format: Paperback
Pages: 384
Imprint: Virago Press Ltd
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 27-Aug-2015
Country of Publication: United Kingdom