IT IS hard to believe that The Brittle Star is a first novel: the style and pace of the narrative are so assured and engrossing. Davina Langdale’s long and complex book is set in California in the 1860s, before and during the American Civil War.
The main character, John Evert Burn, is 15 when the book starts, a green-eyed reserved boy-man who lives happily with his Spanish mother, Maria, on a large unkempt ranch; his American father is dead, and their land is coveted by the neighbouring rancher, the unpleasant, ruthless Phineas Gunn.
The sudden raiding party by a mysterious Indian tribe sets fire to the ranch-house, captures Maria, and leaves John Evert for dead with a serious head-wound and an arrowhead stuck deep in his shoulder. He cleans his head wound, digs out the arrowhead, finds a stray mule, and slowly makes his way to Los Angeles and help.
His only aim is to find and free his mother. Ringing in John Evert’s mind are her words: “Don’t
brood. . . Action is the answer,” as he puts his finger on his lumpy scar and prays: “God, please make me strong and, please God, send someone. Send someone to help me find her. . .”
The sheer tenacity and physical endurance of her young hero is movingly described by Langdale. The family lawyer, Hector Featherstone, finds him work as a reporter, where his fluent Spanish is invaluable.
And then into his life walks the bounty-hunter Bill, another strongly drawn and complex character providing adventure and booty until the Civil War begins, when Bill and John Evert join up to fight for the Union against the Confederates. Drama escalates, and vivid new characters join our hero in the mess and chaos of war.
I was struck by the similarity of background and theme to Sebastian Barry’s multi-award-winning Days Without End, where the action is also described through the eyes of one of the main characters. Langdale’s plainer, elegant narrative style gives an equally vivid picture of the mess of war, and the development to full manhood of her remarkable young hero, John Evert Burn.
Peggy Woodford is a novelist.
The Brittle Star: An epic story of the American West
Church Times Bookshop £13.50