Diamond Star Halo is Tiffany Murray’s second novel; her first, Happy Accidents (2004) was about a dysfunctional family living on a chaotic Herefordshire farm near the English-Welsh border; this one echoes the setting, only now we’ve crossed into Wales itself, the farm has been converted into a recording studio, and the family’s disfunction is extreme to the point of incest. And yet Diamond Star Halo is an irrepressibly cheerful book; it’s a story about crazy love, passion and music; it’s got Bowie, cross-dressing and hauntings; it’s got the untamed Welsh landscape, glam-rock, Johnny Cash and Elvis. It’s about family. And it’s incredibly sensual. I’m not talking eroticism (well, not entirely); Murray’s prose lingers over sound and colour and touch and taste. It’s about as tactile as a novel gets, excluding, you know, those kids’ books with knobbled surfaces and pieces of felt glued to the pages. And notwithstanding the pretty racy, and at times, mournful, content, it’s an exuberant and uplifting read. It’s not perfect, but it’ll carry you along and it’ll probably make you smile.
The book tells the story of Halo Llewellyn – Diamond Star Halo Llewellyn, who learned to walk to T-Rex’s Get It On – the eldest daughter of record producer, Ivan, and former fairground kid, Dolly. Halo’s grown up with music, from her Nana Lew’s precious photographs of the King and her dad’s prayers to the dead rock’n’roll greats, and she’s used to the transient bands who bunk down on the farm to record their albums in Ivan’s converted studio. But in 1977, an American band called Tequila turn up – eight glamorous brothers and Jenny, teenage singer and mother-to-be – and young Halo’s smitten by Jenny’s swollen belly and her unborn son, Fred. Fred, once born, of course, in true fairy-tale style, gets left with the Llewellyns, and Halo’s crush refuses to fade away. Instead she watches her almost-brother grow up and become a musician himself, while she loiters on the farm, waiting for her fate to unfold. And unfold it eventually does, in a mess of longing and sex and loneliness, and Halo’s life is changed forever.
This is a novel awash with detail and and colourful anecdotes; Halo’s parents and grandparents are loquacious storytellers and there’s a fairy-tale, mythic vibe about the whole thing that extends beyond Fred’s foundling status. Dolly, Halo’s mum, was discovered in a Swansea hotel drawer as a baby, and her adoptive mother is a midget who runs a chain of fairgrounds; Halo’s paternal grandfather is a fantasy figure, unidentifiable by anyone, including the grandmother; Halo chats to the ghosts of her long-dead soldier grand-uncles and recites family lore that’s all wrapped up with the song lyrics and the land where she’s grown up. The narrative runs more or less chronologically, with several sidetracks thrown in to recount Ivan and Dolly’s love-story, but it’s got that rambling fireside raconteur-like feel that comes from lavish, lip-smacking embellishment. As it’s a first-person narration, that stems partly from Halo’s initial childish view of the world – it’s all about tastes and smells and impressions, and the bedtime stories that Ivan recites to Halo and her little sister, Molly; later, Halo’s stalled in that early-childhood world because her love for Fred won’t let her move on into a new way of life, and that’s reflected in the writing style. If you’re looking for minimalism or taut prose, you won’t find it here, but if you prefer to wallow in your writing, you’re looking in the right direction.
Plot-wise, there’s not too much to it – Halo’s life remains static, various family secrets are revealed, and Fred comes and goes and tugs our heroine’s heart-strings while he’s at it. The blurb does kind of set it up to be all about their incestuous relationship, and in a way, it is, but I’d describe it as more of a changing family portrait than anything else. You’ve got Ivan and Dolly’s intense passion for one another; the bonds they have with the kids, both biological and adoptive; older brother Vince’s struggle to acclimatise to his homosexuality; little sister Molly’s resentment of Fred and her unwilling role as the family hard-ass; and Fred’s difficulties reconciling his two families – the rural, eccentric Llewellyns versus the globe-trotting, rock-star, biological father, American Abe from Tequila. Because it’s purportedly Halo’s story, and Halo doesn’t actually do very much, I initially found it too slow; I was waiting for the juicy bits to kick in (I’m just that pervy) and getting frustrated by the languid pace. But once I got used to it and realised that the blurb was misleading, I was able to relish Murray’s vivid scene-setting, her musical nostalgia and idiosyncratic characters, and her ability to portray an overpowering love like Ivan and Dolly’s without descending into mawkishness or sentimentality. Halo’s isolated world is surreal, and the novel is fantastical – it’s hard to believe that the farm-cum-recording studio is based on Murray’s own childhood home. I wasn’t thoroughly convinced by Fred; I thought he was more one-dimensional than the other characters, but you could probably see that as a function both of Halo’s view of him and of his fairy-tale, disruptive changeling role in the narrative. There’s perhaps a slight tendency towards caricature at places – Ivan’s mother, Nana Lew, for instance, is pretty unrelenting in her hippy witchiness – but I wouldn’t let it bother you; Murray knits it all together into a convincing, rollicking whole that manages to be more than the sum of its parts.
Any Cop?: If you prefer a more straightforward, less tangential and descriptive type of novel, you’ll probably lose patience with this one. But if you’re a fan of Gram Parsons and Edith Piaf, and you like a rich prose style, then it should appeal. It’s chock-full of Wuthering Heights references, and though the brother-sister relationship is pretty full-on, it’s not a sensationalist tome; rather, it takes Bronte’s passion and applies it to late-twentieth century Wales, minus the horror-story elements. It’s surprisingly full of hope and joy. Stick on some classic vinyl, crack the spine open, and enjoy.