Book Review – Pulling Down the Stars by James Laidler
James Laidler is the author of the verse novel The Taste of Apple which won the IP Picks Best First Book award a couple of years back, and now he’s followed that up with his second novel, Pulling Down the Stars. The focus is on prose this time, although there are snippets of poems and even the occasional song. It’s a heartwarming read and one that I’d recommend to anyone, but particularly older teenage readers.
Charlie Lansdowne is a young man with a number of heavy burdens in his life: he has a job in nursing and a grandfather suffering dementia who needs constant supervision and high-level support. Consequently, he has little time for love and his main pleasure is his band. But even there he finds trouble as his best friend Kane, who is the band’s lead singer, uses Charlie in a number of unpleasant ways that soon sparks a falling out between them. Fittingly, Charlie writes the band’s songs but Kane not only sings them but claims the lyrics as his own. Charlie lives with his father Roger and grandfather Frank and the relationship between the three men is not always harmonious, as we soon discover.
Maxine, known to her friends as Pepsi Max, has problems of her own. She’s a young woman living with her parents and working at the local abattoir, and her main interest is surfing. A drunken outburst sets into motion a series of events and disclosures that threaten to tear her family apart entirely. Things are not right in her seemingly perfect family, and Maxine soon finds herself taken in by Roger and co. after she’s taken advantage of by Charlie’s friend, Kane. Maxine and Charlie start off as close to arch enemies but their relationship thaws significantly as they get to know one another, and eventually Maxine comes to appreciate Charlie’s charms much more than those of the attractive but selfish Kane.
Pulling Down the Stars focuses on these two characters and we have viewpoint chapters from each of them, but the narrative does occasionally broaden to encompass peripheral characters too. Laidler writes confidently about occupations such as nursing and abattoir work, and there are a number of interesting sub-plots concerning Charlie’s dead mother, Maxine’s family and even that of a disgruntled co-worker who threatens to turn this at times into an entirely different kind of novel.
Laidler’s characters are warm and richly imagined and there’s an encompassing goodness to his worldview here, and due to the subject material I believe the novel would appeal to a teenage audience. There’s a subtext of social justice issues but Laidler never brings these fully to the forefront, leaving the reader to muse over the meaning of events as s/he chooses. This is the kind of novel that allows good to triumph over evil without violence in a way that leaves us feeling a little better about our place in the world. It’s a novel about constructing a sense of family and belonging amid situations that often serve to fragment us.