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Tuesday, 07 September 2021 15:05

‘The Actual Star’ burns bright

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.

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Some of the best narrative nonfiction springs from when an author is able to get really granular with the subject at hand. When the writer digs deep, vein after vein of precious literary gems can be unearthed, painting vivid and compelling portraits of people and places. These stories are captivating and enlightening in the best of ways.

Some of the WORST narrative nonfiction starts in the same place. These are the stories wherein the author treats the subject(s) as some sort of vaguely anthropological study, holding themselves above the people with whom they are engaging. They parachute into a place and imagine that their brief dalliance is enough to bestow actual understanding.

The State of Maine has unfortunately seen a bit more of the latter treatment than the former in recent years, with this place and its denizens being rendered simplistically and/or stereotypically – junk shop kitsch instead of fine art.

I honestly wasn’t sure which I was going to get from “Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America” (Harper, $27.99), the new book from Gigi Georges. I’ve been around long enough to know that these efforts to somehow “unlock” the truth of rural America often wind up being little more than condescending confirmations of the author’s already-extant attitudes, cherry picked to prop up whatever thesis they sported upon their arrival.

This book is not that.

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A perhaps underrated aspect of a story’s quality is our engagement by the storyteller.

Yes, I mean the person crafting the story in question, of course, but there’s more to it than that. Once we venture beyond the third-person omniscience POV, well … now you’ve got a narrator. Another layer of the storytelling onion.

There are plenty of narrators in the world of fiction, with wave upon wave of first-person perspectives lapping against assorted narrative shores. There’s a certain degree of familiarity that comes with that plentitude – it’s rare for you to get a story to you by someone whose like you’ve never encountered before.

But in Will Leitch’s new novel “How Lucky” (Harper, $25.99), that’s precisely what we get.

The person at the center of this story – the one through whose eyes we watch it all unfold – is unlike anyone you’ve met in literature. And the story that he shares with us is thrilling and funny and just a little off-kilter, driven by the notion that the desire to save the day isn’t confined to a certain type of person. It’s a story of living a life of limitation, yet refusing to be defined by those limitations – even when the world around you isn’t quite so free of judgment.

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