I received “A Map to the Stars” by Ashley Hutchison, published by Lost Boys Press, as an e-ARC (advanced review copy) in exchange for an honest review.
Form in literature is something that is often relegated to the province of poetry, with novels often devoid of experimentation in rhythm, grammatical structure, and arranged in the same standard manuscript formatting. Sure, over the years plots and storytelling may have changed and evolved, with traditional publishers preferring third-person narrators instead of omniscient narrators. Publishers will cater to the increasingly short attention spans of modern readers by favoring inciting incidents in the first three pages, thinking too much backstory old-fashioned, wanting to see novels written in a fast-paced, cinematic style. Epistolary novels sometimes rise in popularity, those comprised entirely of letters, emails or other documents that drive the plot forward. But more often than not, the epitome of true experimentation in the modern novel comes in the format of comic books and graphic novels.
“A Map to the Stars” breaks that mold, the kind of experiment that is made for the indie market. At the beginning the author steps outside the fourth wall to caution the reader, “Please know this memoir was written to be a movement, so it is best experienced in a single sitting. Find a comfortable chair and prepare yourself for an emotional journey.” That in itself is not like my usual reading style; I typically find myself reading with the TV on in the background, or stealing snatches of passages before bed or between breaks at work. It took me about a couple of hours to read and digest.
This is a portrait of a dysfunctional family, a painting of the scars of abuse. It follows the story of Avery’s childhood, as Avery confronts the abuse and neglect of her mother, and the instability of her upbringing. In many ways it reads like the kind of letter that you write to the family you did not choose, but then the pain is too much to handle, the emotions too raw, so you burn up the letter and never send it. The story moves from poetry, to epistolary in text messages and emails, to prose, a collection of fragmented vignettes strung together as almost a therapeutic exercise.
At times the writing style veered into a bit heavy of a florid/purple prose style for my taste, but I largely found the style to flow well. The writing adapted to the form of each vignette. In many ways this novelette was like one long primordial scream, an exercise in stream-of-consciousness expressionism as Avery tries to come to terms with her troubled childhood and the people in her past. Each chapter is introduced with a drawing of a tarot card, outlining each relationship in Avery’s life, each fairy tale inevitably turned dark, except for a strain of hopefulness throughout, a child’s faith.
At times this story was uncomfortable, but it begs you to sit with it the way you eventually have to sit with your own discomfort, when you are not avoiding your pain or distracting yourself from it. At times it was achingly beautiful. It was always raw. This story was something real, something bold and honest, and it will linger with me for awhile afterward.