By: Gabrielle McLaren, Editor-in-Chief
The titular character of Richard Wagamese’s swan song Starlight, Frank Starlight, is a quiet rancher living on the land where he was raised, which he knows like the back of his hand. With him is his farmhand turned best friend, Eugene Roth. Their shared lives are flipped when they take in Emmy Strong and her daughter Winnie, who are on the run from an abusive ex and his henchman.
This might sound like a fairly simple story — and in some ways it is. However, as with all of Richard Wagamese’s work, it’s not so much the story as it is how it’s told. Wagamese draws on some very powerful themes in very elegant and straightforward ways. My favourite quote from the novel serves as one example. “‘Home,’ Starlight said. ‘Comes to be a truth you carry in your bones. Figure if I can help someone find that, I’m doin’ a good thing.’”
He also uses some very powerful, carefully selected metaphors and motifs that enhance both his characters and his setting — and honestly, said setting is arguably given enough agency and depth to count as a character in its own right. He describes natural landscapes so richly that you never feel as if you’re in the same forest twice. Wagamese’s attention to detail goes down to the stiffness of a shirt. Overall, Wagamese’s use of imagery creates an incredibly visually engaging book that I would highly recommend for visual readers like myself.
Wagamese passed away in spring 2017 before he could complete the book, and his estate and literary agents were the ones who submitted the manuscript for publishing. Initially, this was a big turn-off for me, as my last similar experience was Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, whose publication was surrounded by allegations of elder abuse. I felt like a voyeur as I struggled through the first chapter before ultimately returning the book, always wondering how a young and healthy Lee would feel about these unfinished pages being distributed.
Starlight was nothing like that. It read like other works of Wagamese’s, and there was a tangible amount of love and thought poured into it. It could, however, have used an editor — obviously something that would have happened had Wagamese completed the novel. Some redundancies in phrasing and dialogue could have been dealt with, and character development and exposition could have been done more smoothly.
Ultimately, I understand the decision to only give the draft “light edits,” as they are characterized in the publisher’s note. I also appreciated their reconstruction of the ending in the epilogue, based off of what Wagamese had discussed with friends and family, and the choice to finish the book with one of Wagamese’s essays to give him the last word. Overall, I am thankful for the chance to have read this book despite Wagamese’s passing.
Content warnings for the book include domestic violence and allusions to child abuse and sexual assault.