THE PLOT: The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson is about two sisters who are sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados for the Summer of 1989 (because their mother has sunk into a depression and can no longer cope). However, Phaedra, 10, and Dionne, 16, have been raised in New York and don’t feel like they don’t belong in their mother country. As tomboy Phaedra is ostracized by the other children, Dionne finds her sexual power as a woman. But, when their estranged father arrives on the Island, both girls must choose what life to lead when the Summer ends.
RATING: Four stars? Five stars? Four stars? Five stars? Guess, I’ll have to settle on four and half! This book is beautifully written, with observant and intricate descriptions of the Island, which makes you want to jump on a plane to the Caribbean. A character driven novel, the plot is scant but hangs together well as you become absorbed in the fate and emotions of each character. The slow pace won’t be right for those of you who get easily distracted, but it’s perfect for anyone looking to slowly escape to another time and place.
GOOD BITS: The use of flashback and third person narration to describe the mother’s depression is one of my favourtie aspects of this novel. I felt the depiction of mental health struggles was subtle yet realistic. The mentions of the AIDS epidemic and mother’s affection for her gay best friend (no spoilers!) really added to the feeling of fear and despair, and provided an important extra dimension to the novel. Overall, this presented the perfect tension between the girls’ cold, insular life in New York and the vibrancy of Barbados.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: This is controversial but, if I was an editor, I would’ve changed the opening paragraph to depict Phaedra running around the graveyard. Although the main plot points revolved around the older sister, Dionne, it was clear to me that the younger sister, Phaedra, had the starring role. A lot of the narration focused on events in Phaedra’s points of view, and her feelings towards her mother’s depression were more poignant. I feel like the author could’ve accepted this by starting and ending the novel with Phaedra.
Hmmm, I also felt like the ending could’ve been a little bit neater. Ok, no spoilers, but…. I felt like there could’ve been a little more drama with the father, which would’ve brought the narrative full circle. Basically, the novel’s climax had an extra revelation tagged on, but the revelation could’ve been a bigger deal and become part of the climax. Fine, I’m being so vague this sounds like nonsense. If you’ve read this book, DM me on social media so I can go into more detail about this!
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to someone who doesn’t want an immediate, pacy plot, but who is prepared to breathe and grow with characters. It’s a coming of age novel that explores Phaedra and Dionne’s attitudes to their racial and cultural heritage, mental health and sexuality. If you like delicate prose, apt similes and believe in the eternal, ethereal magic of summer, this is a book for you.