There are many reasons to read Alix E. Harrow’s terrific new novel, Starling House, for it is both resoundingly entertaining and profound. The psychological underpinnings of haunted houses and cursed communities are dealt with powerfully without veering into allegory. The book’s monsters are tethered to forces that readers will experience strong echoes from within. Surprising narrative choices keep the reader on the edge of their literary toes. Another reason to take up Starling House is that it embodies a particular definition of the single most important element of young adult and middles grade literature: coming of age.
What is coming of age? The prosaic idea of it as simply a transition into adulthood has no literary resonance. Certainly transition is present—the shedding of one state to attain another—but the traits of the transition are subtle and various.
We should first note that the nature of coming of age in adult novels and young adult novels are decidedly different. In the inveterately adult The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh describes it as follows: “He was adding his bit to the wreckage; something that had long irked him, his young heart, and was carrying back instead the artist’s load, a great, shapeless chunk of experience; bearing it home to his ancient and comfortless shore; to work on it hard and long.” This sense of having shed romanticism for artistry is the inverse of the young adult understanding of having attained a solid basis for romance.
There is also the question of whether coming of age belongs to any age. Though it is commonly understood to pertain to teenage and early adult years, we must also respect the truth of Ogden Nash’s observation that “we are only young once, but you can stay immature indefinitely.” It is certainly true that coming of age is not, like adolescence, a universal experience. We also find in the pages of Alix E. Harrow’s Starling House that coming of age is not necessarily experienced at any particular point in a person’s age development. For some people it can be suspended for years, but then comes into play due to shifts in a person’s relationship to powerful levers such as trauma, privilege, responsibility, betrayal, and trust.
Opal and Arthur, Starling House‘s protagonists, are two people who are both still young, but stunted in experiencing a coming of age. They each have suppressed what they want out of a state of necessity, a self-driven responsibility to protect others at any cost. They each must overcome a mistaken apprehension that what held them down is also what makes them who they are.
In this, Starling House is an adult novel which contains the heart of young adult coming of age. It defines coming of age as the creation and achievement of home, rather than the inheriting of it. It is a belonging by virtue of character, rather than a bestowal. For Arthur and Opal, coming of age is a stepping into self, a transcending of trauma by honoring its truth and embracing the power of want by relinquishing the familiar security of need. This speaks to the core metaphor of fantasy—and it belongs to anyone who fought, fights, or plans to fight for a meaningful home.