We See the Stars, by Kate van Hooft is a hauntingly beautiful debut from a gifted storyteller about one traumatised child’s attempt to make sense of his world.
I have a clear memory of flying as a child. It was in the backyard of my Nan and Pop’s house and I was alone. I took a slow run up along the sunken concrete patio, parallel to the weatherboards, and leapt.
My stomach bottomed out a little, like when the car flies over a bump in the road or a rollercoaster dips. My limbs propelled me higher and higher, to the lip of the gutter and then up some more. I smiled and peered into the neighbour’s backyard.
I waved to the birds harvesting the apricots right at the top of the trees. I heard Mum call to me from inside. I banked left and plucked an apricot for myself before coming back to earth.
This is a memory, you must understand, not a dream. I don’t pretend to defend it in the face of gravitational reality, I don’t try to analyse it. But I do cherish it as evidence that when I was a child, the world was truly magical. Reality and unreality bled together.
Kate van Hooft, in her incredible debut novel, We See The Stars, has captured this smudging together of worlds perfectly.
11-year-old Simon lives in a tiny Australian country town where everyone thinks he’s a bit weird. You see, he doesn’t speak at all. Nobody really understands him apart from his parents and his brother, Davey. And Superman.
Then Cassie – the scary girl at school with the melted hand – and Ms Hilcombe, the new teacher, befriend him.
Slowly Simon’s mind reveals the secrets of his past, while Ms Hilcombe reveals a secret of her own. Then one day, she vanishes. Only Simon knows where she has gone and only he can save her. But he promised he wouldn’t tell.
The story is masterfully managed and details are drip-fed throughout. As a reader it felt like following a trail of puzzle pieces and trying to put them together on the fly.
However, the story is almost beside the point. The real gem in this novel is the incredible empathy with the mind of a traumatised child.
Simon’s emotions are not just in his head. They are painfully physical. This scene describes his feelings after being told off by his grandmother in the hospital:
A little baby bee, with a stinger only just sharp enough to get through the skin, flew around in my chest and started looking for a place to build a honeycomb. It pushed its way up against the flow of the blood, and eventually got up towards my heart.
Grandma turned away from the doorway, and I knew that I was supposed to follow, but my feet were still covered in mud and reeds and when I tried to move them they were too heavy.
Kate van Hooft has worked in youth mental health for more than a decade and is deeply concerned with children being ‘sometimes pathologised before they are listened to.’
‘Studying and working in social work has, I think, led me to think more fully about trauma,’ she says, ‘and our misconceptions of mental health generally and how this affects children.’
We See The Stars is set in an era before we had a name for every psychological variation outside the scale of ‘normal’. van Hooft never gives a label to Simon’s particular collection of quirks. She does, however, shine a light on the many minor and major traumas experienced by children like Simon on a daily basis.
Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.