‘Paris by Starlight’ is both a gorgeous piece of fabulism and a harrowing tale of human nature. It’s a story you have to be in a good mood to read – otherwise the dark undertones can drag you down into a pit of despair. With everything happening in the world at the moment, it took me some time to read this book – but it’s beautifully written and its observations on human nature are spot on.
This is, at its heart, a story about finding home. Isabelle’s father left when she was six years old, and now – as an adult – she’s come to Paris to find him. But finding her father is harder than she thought, and memories and dreams never quite match up with the real thing. Levon’s home was ripped apart by war when he was a child, and he’s spent years trekking across borders and through refugee camps to find somewhere his family can call home. Against all the odds, he’s made it to Paris – but the life of a refugee is precarious, and places that seem welcoming can switch to hostile in a second.
A city hosts a thousand different worlds, and they snake around each other, their atlases like the scribbling in a child’s notebook
Isabelle is a delightful character. Her love of music shines through every page and illuminates her life, and her adventurous spirit is a joy to read about. However, her life is fraught with difficulty, and it tugs on the heartstrings how trying to do the right thing to often ends in despair. Robert Dinsdale really makes you care about his characters, and it makes the hardships he puts them through truly difficult to read about.
Levon is a man torn between two worlds – the world of his People, whose home has been destroyed, and the world of Paris he’s ended up in. His loyalty to his family and his People is lovely to read about, but it regularly puts him into conflict. Like Isabelle, Levon has a big heart and always tries to do the right thing – but it’s never clear what the right thing is, and when push comes to shove Isabelle is the stronger. That being said, Levon’s relationship with his sister Arina is a light, especially in the second half of the book.
Fabulism is a very hit or miss genre for me – too often it tips over too far into the fantastical and throws me out of the story. ‘Paris by Starlight’ achieves the rare feat of getting the balance between the real and the fantasy just right. The magic elements illuminate the story but don’t overcrowd it, sitting beautifully alongside the smaller tales of ordinary people just getting by. I adored the imagery and the whimsical, impossible nature of everything happening – which made it all the more harrowing when the dream started to shift into a nightmare.
Everyone gets a story, and then that story ends.
The tonal shift in this book is gradual. It starts of beautiful, dreamlike, evoking vibes of books like ‘The Night Circus’ – but things start to shift, and a dark cloud descends over the magic. I found this shift difficult to cope with. This is marketed for fans of Erin Morgenstern and Neil Gaiman, but I’ve never found either authors work to feel quite so insidious or harrowing. It’s exceptionally cleverly done, and I respect the author’s decision to inject some realism – the world, after all, is rarely kind – but I wasn’t expecting it, and at a time of high stress I simply needed a lighter read. I don’t want to criticise the author for what is entirely a personal preference at this moment in time, but I want to be honest about what readers should expect. This is not always a happy book, and the sheer depth of emotion – a sign of how good the writing is – can make the reading experience a rocky road.
Overall, this is an exceptionally written piece of fabulism with gorgeous, evocative imagery – but one that has a darker side that won’t be for everyone. In times as stressful as those we’re currently in, this may well be a marmite read.
Thanks to NetGalley and Cornerstone for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Cornerstone
Hardback: 5th November 2020