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Book DetailsISBN: 9781760899547
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Book Review: A Glasshouse of Stars by Shirley Marr - Reviewed by CloggieA (12 May 2021)
5 stars “’Are you afraid of the darkness?’ ‘No. Because you can only see the stars when it is dark.’”
A Glasshouse of Stars is the second novel for children by first generation Chinese-Australian author, Shirley Marr. In the New Land, Meixing Lim has arrived at First Uncle’s (huge) house with her Ba Ba and Ma Ma, who is carrying her yet-to-be-born brother or sister. But First Uncle isn’t there: he died of a heart attack while picking his beloved oranges, just before the Lims were due.
Now they need to settle in: Ma Ma must keep calm for the baby; Ba Ba needs to get a job; Meixing will have to go to school; none of them has more than a few words of English. The house is strange, and scary, seems almost to be alive, winks at her from its semi-circular attic window, and is soon dubbed Big Scary by Meixing.
Much is expected of Meixing: “You must do well at school here so that everything, all the sacrifices and hardships your parents have made, will be worth it. Instead of lifting you up and making you feel lucky, it makes you feel leaden, as though the world is on your shoulders.”
In the backyard is a dilapidated-looking glasshouse, and when Meixing is feeling upset about the pressure of the whole situation, she enters at the bidding of its apparent gatekeeper, a black and white cat, and discovers a wonderous interior, belied by the rust and broken glass panes. And the ghost of First Uncle, whose presence, far from being frightening, offers exactly the reassurance she needs.
The Huynh family next door are friendly and helpful, even if the food they bring isn’t quite what the Lim’s are used to, and communication consists of few words. Meixing is mortified when she realises she is wearing hand-me-downs from Kevin Huynh, also in her class, an angry boy also not coping well. At first, school is as unpleasant as she had expected.
When her distress is too great, she seeks solace in the glasshouse with First Uncle. Then when tragedy strikes, a mass of aunts invades Big Scary: a mixed bag of nasty cousins and an encouraging aunt who understands Meixing perfectly.
Eventually, what is most important makes itself clear to Meixing: ”Since you came to this New Land you are no longer a child who is scared of monsters or fox spirits or rotting hopping vampires. You stand against the dark and your heart is calm and big. You know what you are scared of in this world and that is people and their expectations and hatred and unkindness.”
Writing in the second person is not often achieved successfully, and without ambiguity, but Marr manages it with ease. Her characters and their plight cannot help but tug at the heartstrings. Her own experience of immigration and xenophobia clearly inform her plot.
With her quirky and courageous characters, her wonderfully evocative prose and her infusion of magical realism, Shirley Marr conveys, to those Australians who have safely grown up inside their comfort zone, the experience of trying to assimilate into a new country, one with a different language, a different climate, different food, customs and culture, one far away from family and friends and everyone who looks and thinks like you do. And she does it brilliantly. This is a topical and important book for readers of all ages. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Better Reading Preview and Penguin Australia.
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