This is a curious novel. It follows two impoverished sisters, Gladys and Annie, living in a run down part of North London. Their landlord sells their home to a “rackman” – a phrase many people will be unfamiliar with, but used here to describe an unscrupulous landlord likely to drive up rents, harass tenants, and ignore the fabric of their properties. If you are interested in the original Rachman this makes an interesting read – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Rachman.

While the new landlord does indeed appear to be closely modelled on the original, instead of turning the sisters out into the street he installs his ailing but apparently much loved wife in the neighbouring house. She has an au pair, a German refugee, Erika, and a daughter, Peggy. Peggy’s parallel unhappy love story has all the hall marks of a short story worked into the longer narrative (nothing wrong with that by the way – Raymond Chandler did much the same thing to stunning effect in some of his novels). The sisters, drawn with some affection but no illusions as to their frailities (Glad is a gossipy fool, Annie a nervous hypochondriac), turn to the local clergy for assistance. The vicar and his curate are another pair in this story of couples, again drawn with affection but unblinkingly, their flaws and weaknesses shown without hesitation. The eccentric lodger living in the attic appears in the narrative occasionally adding a further element of mystery to the story.

As a novel Starlight has its limitations. We slowly come to like the central characters, more or less, are happy for them when their lives improve, and take pleasure in their small victories and enjoyments. The wider cast is equally well drawn, but are closer to caricature. The novel has some awkward moments which to me indicated some clumsiness in drafting – people behaving in ways that do not feel natural or convincing, such as the landlord Pearson being knocked down by the 60 year old vicar, or the (spoiler) motiveless murder of the old man from the attic.

It is probably as a period piece that this novel holds the most interest, a portrait of a time when one generation of English people were still looking back to the war, and the later generation warming up to the 1960s. We aren’t told when the action of the novel occurs, and Gibbons uses this imprecision to show the different perspectives of her characters. One of the older characters refers in a slip of the tongue to drawing the curtains as “doing the blackout”; the older characters shop as if they were still subsisting on rations (in a way they are), and live in world where houses are still uninhabitable from damage from the Blitz. The younger ones go to a dance featuring the long-haired “Spacemen”, locating the novel’s events right up to the time of publication (1967), more than 20 years after the end of the war. Erika brings this gap being a refugee from a continent seemingly only just recovering from the war. The narrator, and the author, firmly sides with the older generation, having little sympathy for longer than collar length hair, drawing links between this debauchery and mindless street fighting and murder.
What makes the novel genuinely weird is the plot line about possession. Yes, demonic, head turning, green eyed possession, eventually cast out by crucifix wielding, holy water splashing clergymen. I’ve exaggerated for comic effect slightly here, but only a little. It is a decidedly odd element to introduce, and despite its centrality to the climax of the novel actually adds little to the overall impact of the story.
I bow to no-one in my admiration of the genius of Stella Gibbons, which peeps through here in many elements of this novel, but overall I can’t deny that this is really for the completists amongst us. Many thanks nonetheless to Vintage for republishing these long lost novels.

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