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‘The Actual Star’ burns bright

September 7, 2021
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The power of story is significant, burning brightly across time and space. Our stories are what define us. Our stories turn the everyday now into history, the history into legend and the legend into myth. So much of our understanding of not just who we are, but who we were and who we may yet become, springs from story.

Monica Byrne understands that fundamental truth as well as anyone. Byrne follows up her excellent 2014 debut “The Girl in the Road” with a millenia-spanning triptych that marries past, present and future in a manner that’s not quite like anything you’ve read before.

“The Actual Star” (Harper Voyager, $27.99) is a stunningly realized work of literary fiction. Byrne blends elements of speculative and historical fiction to create a trio of timelines, each a thousand years apart, the individual stories serving to illustrate a fundamental truth of narrative power. The stories we tell, that we pass on, can come to define us in the eyes of those who follow. Flexible and fluid, these tales grow and evolve until they are both of us and not of us.

These stories – set in the years 1012, 2012 and 3012 – unspool as separate pieces that are nevertheless inherently bound up with one another. They are three, even as they are one. The book is intricately, densely plotted; narrative tendrils from each time reach out and entangle themselves with the other two. It could be knotty and difficult to follow; instead, thanks to Byrne’s gifts, it is simply a mesmerizing journey through three very different, yet very connected times.

The year 1012 finds us in the company of the scions of a royal family, soon-to-be rulers of a vast Mayan kingdom. Born and bred for their current path, lives lived in the isolation of adoration. The twins – Ajul and Ixul – are teenagers, poised to ascend to the throne. Their entire existence is defined by their station and their relationship to their gods, though their relationship with one another is … complicated. It is a world of sacrifice, an effort to please those of the afterlife they call Xibalba.

In 2012, a teenager named Leah makes the pilgrimage to Belize from Minnesota in an effort to connect with her absent father and her Mayan heritage. Her connection to the place is instant and intense. Among the people that she meets (and charms with her bold naivete) are Javier and Xander, twins who work for competing guided tour operators. Both are drawn to Leah, though for different reasons. And both are challenged by their connection to their home – one sees it as a gift, the other as an anchor.

A thousand years later, in 3012, the world has been drastically and irrevocably altered by the consequences of massive climate change. The population is a tiny fraction of what it once, and all are nomadic, constantly moving from place to place, behavior codified by the religion shared by the overwhelming majority of all people on Earth. This movement – both physically and ideologically – is a fundamental part of civilization, with the handful who choose to settle in one place looked down upon. But when Niloux deCayo questions tenets of that faith, those questions have consequences.

And there in the middle, binding these three disparate times, is Actun Tunichil Muknal.

This sacred cave is the throughline, the largely unchanged pivot point. For humanity, two thousand years is a massive shift. For rock, it is merely an eyeblink. Thus, amidst so much drastic change, it remains. For the people in all three timelines, this cave is the key to finding the next world. To finding Xibalba. The sacrifices of 1012 became the fascination of 2012 became the exaltation of 3012, intricately braiding the three.

“The Actual Star” is a wildly ambitious undertaking. Crafting one compelling narrative is difficult enough, but three? And to construct the book in such a way that the failure of one means the failure of all? Bold is an understatement. Yet thanks to years of meticulous research and a confidence in her own storytelling gifts, Byrne more than realizes that ambition. This is a stunning piece of work, lyrical and dense without sacrificing narrative propulsion.

It can’t be stressed enough: Byrne gives us three intricately complete worlds. In 1012, the story of Ajul and Ixul is rich with detail, built upon a foundation of fact. The societal structure, the architecture, the religion – all beautifully rendered. The Belize of 2012 feels lived in and genuine in a remarkable way. There’s a clear grasp on the societal mores of the place; we even get linguistic shifts to illustrate the cultural blend. And in 3012, we’re given a speculative future that draws its fundamental ideas from all across the ideological spectrum, a world largely without walls that offers a glimpse of what might spring from the desperate degeneration of the climate.

And by showing us these worlds from the perspective of those living in them – Ajul and Ixul; Leah, Javier and Xander; Niloux and her rival Tanaaj – we’re allowed to occupy that space much more intimately than we otherwise could. Another one of Byrne’s considerable gifts is an ability to evoke depth of character; these people exist in an almost tangible way, practically breathing on the page. Their virtues and their flaws all on display, rendering them utterly, beautifully human.

“The Actual Star” is unlike anything I’ve read. This is a story about what stories can do, about the narratives of life and the way in which they can change through time. Was, is and will be – all are parts of the whole. It is about connections – those we can see and those we cannot – to the world around us. It is immersive and idiosyncratic and without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time.

Last modified on Tuesday, 07 September 2021 11:13

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