Thursday, 2 December 2010

Diamond Star Halo, Tiffany Murray

On my last visit to Foyle's bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I was determined to find something brand-new. A book I hadn't seen in high street shops, that jumped off the shelves and shouted "buy me!" An impulse buy. After all, there's no point making a trek all the way up to London to buy something I could have got from my workplace. On my previous visit I discovered Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver - I didn't buy it then, but I was immediately drawn to it and knew I'd like it. Then, last month, it was Diamond Star Halo.

Halo, or to give her full name, Diamond Star Halo Llewellyn, lives at an old farm that is now used as a recording studio. When she is about five years old a band called Tequila arrive; eight golden-haired, bearded brothers and Jenny, the sixteen-year-old wife of the lead singer. When a tragedy occurs, Tequila leave behind them Jenny and Abraham's baby son, Fred. The years go by and as a teenager Halo realises she is in love with Fred - but although they are not related by blood, he might as well be her brother. At seventeen Fred follows in his parents' footsteps and becomes a rock star, while the family faces further sorrow.

Diamond Star Halo is a quirky novel about family, rock'n'roll and Crazy Love. The narrative feels slightly skewed, with everything seen through rock'n'roll and myth-tinted glasses. Important family events are muddled up with big events of musical history, such as Elvis's death. Halo is named after a line in a T.Rex song. The Llewellyns, especially Nana Lew, tell colourful and improbable versions of the family history that leave you wondering what is real and what is a fabrication - rather like the stories of Edward Bloom in Big Fish. For example, the official story is that Halo's mum was born in a dressing-table drawer (placed there by her birth mother, an unwed hotel maid, during the Blitz, and found by her adoptive mother.) Halo, everybody says, was literally born to be a drummer. The narration becomes a little strange when Halo, the narrator, speaks in such great detail about the ghosts of her three great-uncles killed in the First World War, that I didn't know where the line was to be drawn. Are we expected to believe in the literal existance of these ghosts, or is her imagination working overtime? In the end, it doesn't really matter.

I found myself reminded of Mari Strachan's The Earth Hums in B Flat, another Welsh novel, with a child narrator who presents the world as she understands it, with truth and imagination blurred, and sometimes misunderstanding what is really going on.

I found some aspects of Halo a little uncomfortable to read. Fred is too nearly her brother for their relationship with each other not to feel wrong and a bit squeam-inducing. Characters are sexually precocious, behaving like adults while young teenagers, and teenagers when pre-teen. Conversely Halo's narration seemed to be that of a younger child until she was sixteen. Perhaps for this reason, I found the timeline a little difficult to follow, especially around the teenage section. Although Part II is subtitled 1988 (when Halo is 16) there are flashbacks to a few years previously, and I found it ambiguous whether the flashback covered a single scene or a longer passage, if the narrative hopped back a few years before hopping forward again, or shuffling gradually through the 1980s towards the "present" time.

Overall I give Halo 3 and a half stars. For personal engagement with the story, I give three - perhaps there were just too many quirks to the Llewellyn family to make them quite real - but I award an extra half star for the work's literary merits, as it is a well-written, original and intelligent novel.

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