Modern society is obsessed with celebrity culture, plastic surgery, fame and fortune. While the newspapers fill up with stories about Big Brother winners, and wives famous only for being wives of footballers, some real news, real issues in society, get pushed to the back pages. Global warming. Mental health, depression, suicide. Niall Griffiths is angry about this. Extremely angry. A Great Big Shining Star is a brutal, lyrical, and believable satire engendered by this anger. Griffiths has taken a look at the world we live in today and reacted with a powerful tirade against all that he sees.
Interestingly, though, he is not necessarily taking aim at the young, celebrity obsessed teenagers who see boob jobs and sexual encounters with sports stars as their quickest way out. It’s the culture that created them that takes the brunt of his wrath. Protagonist Grace Allcock is in many ways a sweet young girl, doing what many girls of sixteen do in this country on a weekly basis. She reads Heat magazine, she watches I’m a Celebrity, she has a boyfriend who she loves, but who she casts aside when the advances of faces she has seen on TV come her way. Most of all, she aspires. She longs to have what Jordan has, what Jodie Marsh has, what Colleen Rooney, Abbey Clancy, and all the other talentless B-listers in Britain seem to have. Money. Recognition. A free pass to the best nightclubs.
Griffiths does an exemplary job of demonstrating how Grace Allcock is not to blame for the path she follows on the way through her rise and fall. She’s a young, impressionable girl who believes what she sees and reads, and when a man in a suit tells her that he can give her the world she believes him. And the reader spends every page of this novel feeling sad and sorry for her, despite the stupid decisions she makes.
The novel really comes into its own with the addition of a second voice. Kurt is a janitor at the school Grace went to as a child. He remembers an incident in which she fell and scraped her knee and he put a plaster on it and gave her a daisy to hold in her hand. He remembers her thanking him. He remembers her as a sweet, innocent, pretty young girl. But Kurt is also a very unstable man. Having attempted suicide earlier in his life, Kurt spends his days trying to hold himself together. He worries about the state of the planet, but he has no power to do anything about it. The path Grace is following upsets him deeply, but as he spends nights alone with his wine and beer, he can’t help but view her sex tape when it’s leaked on the web. He can’t draw himself away from the before and after shots of her boob job in a lad mag. Eventually, this situation dregs up demons that the isolated and ignored Kurt has tried to bury, and the lives of the two protagonists converge in tragic circumstances.
Griffiths writes in a style reminiscent of David Peace and Irvine Welsh. Like both those writers, he also tries to highlight societal ills that he feels are being ignored. A big difference between these writers is that Griffiths is writing about today and tomorrow, rather than the recent past. He’s writing about this very second. And what is scariest of all about this book is that it doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Many of the deeply disturbing events in this novel have a basis in our recent real world.
Any Cop?: In a word, yes. I’d never heard of Griffiths before, so how big an audience this novel will get is a mystery. It deserves to be read widely in the UK. A Great Big Shining Star feels like one of the most culturally important novels I remember reading.