Review: 'The Actual Star' by Monica Byrne
Pub. Date: 9/14/2021
Publisher: Avon; Harper Voyager
The Actual Star is my favourite book of 2021. I know that we still have a few months to go in this year and that many other great books are still coming out. I already know, or rather I already feel, however, that the way in which this novel has reached me won't be repeated so easily. The blurb calls this novel a 'feast of ideas' and it is indeed both a feast and full of ideas. Reading The Actual Star was so smooth, so enjoyable, that it only struck me at night, when I finally stepped away from it, just how many ideas and thoughts the book had brought up. I found that the novel influenced my thinking on gender and sexuality, on the function of religion, on the line between censorship and open discussion, on identity, on the ties between family, on tradition, on love, on the future. And yet never, not once, did the themes or ideas overtake the story and the feeling of the story itself. Story drives The Actual Star and its themes and ideas are woven in beautifully. I will be re-reading this book over the coming years, as I have done with Byrne's previous novel, The Girl in the Road. And on every re-reading I will find something new, I will reach new understandings and discover a new part of myself.
Where to begin with the story? The Actual Star takes place across three timelines, in three different millennia. The first takes place in 1012, where the royal Mayan twins Ajal and Ixul prepare to take their parents' throne in the hopes to restore their empire to prosperity and glory. With them is their younger sister Ket, who connects to their traditions and history in a different way. In 2012 we find our second storyline, in which Leah from Minnesota travels to Belize to discover her roots and fill the void she has always felt within her. There she meets the twins Xander and Javier, tour guides, whose relationship to each other and their country's history and tradition is tense. The third storyline takes place in 3012, in which the religion and way of life established after catastrophic climate change is threatened when two thinkers imagine different futures. And that's where I'm going to leave you, plot wise. I tried to go into The Actual Star as blindly as possible, which I would argue is the best way. I have also removed a paragraph from the blurb above because the connection between these stories, the strands that braid them together, should be discovered page by page. Don't think too far ahead, just join these brilliant characters as they search for meaning in ancient tradition, for help from silent gods, to connection across the years.
The world-building that has gone into The Actual Star is honestly mind-blowing. Byrne has done painstaking research into the Maya civilization, their beliefs, their language, and it all show in the chapters dedicated to the first timeline. But it also echoes through the others and that was one of my favourite aspects of the novel: the way in which culture reshapes, survives, and adapts. But not only has she brought to life a period of the past that is unknown to many readers, she has also envisioned a breathtaking vision for the future, shaped by climate change and refugees. In a way it knocked the wind out of me the way Mad Max: Fury Road did, in that I saw a fully realized and whole, that I could see. Only that Byrne gives me so much more to hope for, so much more potential good, while never forgetting that humans will remain humans. With such brilliant work done on the 1012 and 3012 timeline, one could imagine that the more "pedestrian" 2012 would feel flat. But through the eyes of Leah it is brought utterly to life. The way she sees herself, the world, the people around her, it is entirely vivid and real.
Monica Byrne finds the sharp edge between accessible writing and complex thought, and walks it seemingly effortlessly. While The Actual Star does a lot of complex things, like working across three different timelines, employing a variety of languages, envisioning an entirely radical new future, commenting on climate change, refugees, gender, identity, and so much more, Byrne never lets this complicate her writing. The Actual Star is accessible in the best possible way in that no matter how different the characters' situations are from your own, you still recognize them as people. They are deeply human, whether they live in 1012, 2012 or 3012. They have desires and needs, fears and hopes, secrets and grand plans. They need to sleep, they need to wash, they also need to connect and talk and even fight with others. It is not often, in my opinion, that a novel manages to strike this balance so well, to be epic and grand without any sign of pretension, to go deeply into the human soul and actually not neglect the human aspect. The Actual Star is stunning, human, other-worldly and innovative, as well as all the things in between. Go read it. Do yourself the favour!
I give this novel...
At the risk of sounding too mind-blown, too adoring, The Actual Star is one of a kind. With its depth and reach, it is unlike any other book I have read in the last few years. It will stay with me for a long time and I will be recommending it wherever I go.
You can support Monica Byrne through her Patreon.