Who is the Audience for Starling House by Alix E. Harrow? 🏚️ (book review)
GENRE: Adult Fantasy
LENGTH: 320 pages
Opal, an outcast, is drawn to the darkly mysterious Starling House. Inside the house, Arthur lives alone as the final warden of the house with a doorway to the underworld.
Opal is a protective elder sister who has been raising her brother since their mother’s death. She is inexplicably drawn to Starling House. All of her hardships have led her to push aside her own dreams and wants in favor of survival. Arthur, meanwhile, grew up in Starling House and has been largely isolated there for years. He, too, had to give up the life he desired in order to be the house’s warden. Both characters are sympathetic given their life circumstances and how they have chosen to sacrifice for the greater good. Opal is an easier character to connect with, however, because the book focuses more on her perspective and her chapters are written in first person as opposed to Arthur’s third person. The two end up developing a romantic connection but I personally wasn’t a fan of their relationship. For one, Arthur is Opal’s employer and he gives her a number of expensive gifts which means they have an unequal power balance. This sort of situation is always a sticky one to navigate. Even without that, though, I just felt like they lacked any substantial chemistry.
My favorite character is actually a side character named Bev. She’s the manager of the motel where Opal and her brother live. She’s gruff around the edges but her insides are like putty. I am so horribly fond of that character archetype. In my opinion, she’s the real unsung hero of this story.
As mentioned above, the novel is dual perspective. Thematically, the book focuses on the power of dreams (both forgotten and realized) and what it means to have a home. There are also a lot of footnotes in the novel which add context, primarily about the history of the town. I consumed this book via audiobook, but if I had been reading physically I probably would have been inclined to ignore the footnotes. My take on footnotes is the writing should be such that it doesn’t need asides to properly explain things to the reader.
This novel is sold as a gothic horror but as a self-professed scaredy-cat I’d personally classify it as a lightly spooky fantasy. It’s a haunted house story, yes, and it nails the atmosphere, but it’s not the kind of book that’s going to give you nightmares. If you crave those misty, creaky stories that leave you just a little unnerved then this might work for you. However, if you’re a seasoned horror reader you’ll probably not be impressed by what this book delivers.
Starling House itself is personified in this novel. It seems to bury itself beneath the skin of its wardens (and potential wardens). Something interesting is the contrasting ways in which the two protagonists view the house. Arthur seems to have an antagonist relationship with the house whereas Opal thinks of the house as home. It was so fascinating to see how the house responded to them differently. The plot itself wasn’t revolutionarily unique, but the house being essentially a living entity was a nice twist to the typical haunted house trope.
One tiny critique I have is the name of the motel where Opal lives. It’s called the Garden of Eden (because it’s in Eden, Kentucky). Having a motel with a biblical reference for a name in a town where there’s a house with a supposed portal to hell…yeah. I confess, it’s something that I, as a writer myself, probably would have thought was clever but as a reader it made me roll my eyes a little.
This is such a strange book to recommend because I struggle to figure out who the ideal audience is. It seems like it wants to cater to the horror readers but won't commit to it. Even for someone like me who loves to be spooked but hates to me outright frightened, there wasn't quite enough of that disconcerting factor. It's well written (if occasionally a little too on the nose) and a great autumnal read, but I just worry that those who pick it up might find themselves disappointed that it's not what they expected.