Groombridge author’s debut ‘Starling’ creates a murmuring in the book world

SARAH Jane Butler is an author to watch. She has previously published short stories and poems in numerous literary journals and anthologies, and her story ‘The Swimmer’ was included in Best British Short Stories 2011.

She has also twice won the 26 Project Writer’s Award, most recently in 2021 for her poem ‘Flow’.

She has now penned her first novel, Starling, and the author – who grew up in Tunbridge Wells and now lives in Groombridge – says her debut book took nine years to write.

She said: “I love the act of writing – it’s like really serious playing. Life is so surprising, complex, scary and beautiful, and each of us lives it in our own way – writing is how I explore and try to understand it.

“And fundamentally, I’m a writing geek – I love grammar, syntax, every aspect of language. I’m deeply happy when I’m messing about with words.

“I had an image in my mind of a girl trying to find her way home – wherever that was – alone, cross-country, on foot.”

She added: “I made my first notes about Mar and Starling in 2013, though it took me ages to work out how to tell their story.

“I’ve learned about my writing process along the way – no matter how much time I have, I rarely write more than 500 new words a day; I’m more interested in characters than plot; and it’s fine to take a break from writing – essential even. I had to have a year off, in fact, because I was ill.”

The result is a debut novel that has received plaudits from around the book world.

Katherine May, author of Wintering, called it a ‘beautifully written debut’. She went on to say: “Sarah Jane Butler explores the challenges of treading lightly in this modern world, the power of community and the process of recovering from a difficult mothering.”

While Zoe Gilbert, author of Mischief Acts, praised the title as a ‘A beautiful tale of wandering and searching, full of gorgeous nature writing that illuminates our complex and varied relationships with the natural world’.

Locally, Mr Books in Tonbridge also tweeted his support for the novel, saying it was one of the bookshop’s ‘stand-out fiction books of the year’.

Starling is deeply embedded in the landscape of the High Weald, and local readers will recognise its hills, woods and fields even if they are never directly named.

It is the story of a young woman who has grown up ‘off-grid’, travelling in a camper van with her unconventional mother, Mar.

Starling can trap a rabbit, cook a meal from a hedge and hear a bailiff coming from a mile off. All she has ever known is a nomadic existence with her strong-willed mother.

But Mar has cut them off from their community, and this winter they’re stuck in deep mud in a wood with no fuel, no money and no friends.

One morning, without explanation, Mar leaves and doesn’t come back.

Utterly alone, Starling must suddenly learn to survive without her mother and build a life on her own terms.

An offer to stay with an old friend draws her into a more conventional way of living – but can rootless Starling ever find a place where she truly belongs?

The novel explores themes of belonging, alternative lifestyles, climate change and respect for the natural world.

Starling is published by Fairlight Books and is available in bookshops and online from £14.99 for the hardcover and £3.99 as an e-book.

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