I have to admit that I thought that the title to Ashley Stokes' debut novel Touching the Starfish was a bit rude. But it's not. That's just me.
So what is Touching the Starfish?
It's a book for every creative writing lecturer out there. If you ever wanted to write about your experiences in this area, then don't. It's been done. And I can't imagine it being done better than TTS manages to do. There's plenty of Thank God It's Not Just Me moments when Nathan Flack, the novel's protagonist is describing his horrific experiences with his new tutor group. There's a lot of footnote asides that explain about the Moon-Barkers and Rom-Ts and Wrong-Roomers that inhabit his group.(1) You know what I mean, the ones that would merrily drive you crazy. If you let them.
(1) Put simply, the bonkers, the over-romantics and people who should really be telling it to a therapist type of students.
You might even nick some decent writing exercises.
Still, it's not just a book about teaching creative writing. It's a book for every jaded writer who still has nostalgia for bookshops; the desire to find something to read that feeds you, the ones you relish, as opposed to the 3for2s; the Importance of Any Email / Post / Unexpected phone call which could be The One.
But it's also bloody, and often unexpectedly, funny. Don't read it in front of anyone. Read it on your own so you can choke on your own laughter, finally get it out, and start barking unapologetically. Something writers don't do enough of I think (again, that could just be me). (2)
(2) You may discover you have some different laughs, too. I noted a squeaky one that I wasn't aware of till now.
All this might suggest the book is a bit flippant. It's just superficial, surface stuff poking fun at writers and students and whatnot. But Flack is haunted, perhaps by his inner psychology/destructive self-critic, perhaps by a Moon-Barker, or something even more sinister. Flack also admits to the fact that he writes to be close to other people, a simple and sensitive truth that perhaps many writers would agree with. We write to explore, to understand and, perhaps, to connect. Coupled with the fact that Flack's doing his damnedest to avoid intimacy with an `impossibly beautiful' albeit slightly difficult ex girlfriend, this starts to get really interesting. And the writing is brilliantly observed with nourishing, juicy detail that, if you are a writer, you will nod at and perhaps be slightly jealous (while still inspired to write).
Case in point:
A cafetiere cooled on the coffee table and, underscored by crackles on the vinyl, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue swam around the tangerine walls. (3)
(3) I've heard reviews are supposed to be balanced: Okay. I would have liked it to be ever so slightly pacier. Maybe less of the group to start with. The footnotes work mostly, sometimes brilliantly, but sometimes disrupt the pace.
But enough about why a writer might like it. Here's why readers will read:
Who is the inner voice that speaks to Nathan? Who is the shadowy figure staring into his flat at night? Will he solve all his problems, sell his book and live happily ever after?
I read this book in a couple of days. It gave this rather jaded writer who unfortunately seems to read for a living, as opposed to writing, back that compulsion to devour. To look forward to going back to the book. To wish people would leave so you can - Get Back to the Book. For me, a rare and actual page-turner.
If you don't buy it now, you're dafter than a Moon-barker.
Amazon - £16.14, pp 533
Stokes, A (2010) Touching the Starfish. Unthank Books.
Twitter - @AshleyJStokes