Lilienne Shore Kilgore-Brown
An Actual Review about The Actual Star
Updated: Dec 9, 2021
If you pick up The Actual Star, open it to the middle, and read it for 10 minutes, you might not realize that the storyline and character you are currently following is just one piece of a much more complex puzzle, that the scope of what is Monica Byrne’s second novel stretches far beyond any one moment or person. This novel is ambitious in this way, following three storylines from three moments in time (set in the years 1012, 2012, and 3012) while giving full attention to each and fleshing out every detail.
In 1012, twins and lovers Ajul and Ixul prepare to ascend the throne one year after their parents' death, which has left them and their younger sister Ket the only remaining members of the royal family. In 2012, 19-year-old Leah Oliveri buys a plane ticket to Belize in an effort to connect with her Mayan heritage, as she is fascinated by the spiritual realm of Xibalba. In 3012, the last of the world’s ice has melted, and Niloux DeCayo writes a controversial letter asserting her usurpation of the global society’s values. What unites each of these timelines, however, is their orientation around one single Belizean cave.
Leah’s story serves as the heart of this novel—her journey is largely shaped by the past actions of Ixul, Ajul, and Ket, and her life is the foundation on which Niloux’s future time exists. From the first page, Leah’s eventual fate serves as a point of mystery, as Niloux reveals in her future time that Leah had “disappeared” in the Great Cave on December 21st, 2012, and that she (Niloux) believes, with searching, they would “find her bones alongside the others”. This immediate cliffhanger serves as the launching-off point of the book. The fate of her life and her disappearance becomes the central point of interest, and the how, why, and what it has to do with twins from one thousand years ago brings each timeline together, creating a compelling story.
Classifying this novel within only one genre would be neglecting a great many strides Byrne makes in crafting such a complete world in The Actual Star. It’s historical, contemporary, and yet science fiction all at once. The sci-fi element, namely the futuristic society of 3012, presents the biggest challenge in terms of familiarity. Byrne doesn’t hold the reader’s hand. She makes immediate use of unfamiliar and entirely new words without explicitly describing their meaning, often neglecting to confirm definitions until many pages or chapters later (if ever). The reader must learn to adapt and catch on as they go.
With language, too, Byrne is unafraid, writing exchanges in formal Spanish and even whole conversations in Kriol. The latter is comprehensible to an English speaker only with intense concentration, forcing the reader to slow down and sound words out. Spanish is used in the novel as a spiritual and religious language; there’s great meaning embedded in how and when it’s used, what words are chosen, and to whom the character is speaking. That’s not to say the book is impossible to read without a grasp of Spanish—it’s simply made better for it. Just as the central cave unexpectedly acts upon each character, the book unexpectedly acts upon the reader, forcing them to mumble the language to themselves, parse out the etymology of exquisitely fabricated words, and find the hidden connections between each narrative string.
Religion, and the exploration of it, are Byrne’s great masterpiece in this text. In the 3012 timeline, a character describes “braiding,” defined in the glossary as “a method of reconciling multiple streams of information to discuss an issue and arrive at a resolution.” In the story, this involves complex scientific and technological developments; the book itself forces the reader to braid, using religion and spirituality as a key. Through the characters’ various and many-faceted faiths, three discordant narratives come together, discuss an issue, and arrive at a resolution.
For being such a spiritual story, Byrne’s narration can be shockingly frank. The Actual Star’s plot and themes cultivate an otherworldly aura, but the language doesn’t mirror that with flowery words or loping descriptions. Instead, Byrne writes plainly, navigating the tricky discussions of human bodies in relation to sex, incest, and self-harm. Truthfully, the descriptions of sexual encounters between characters are almost uncomfortable to read, yet never pornographic. The Actual Star only ever takes you from your own present moment, but it never forgets itself and removes you from the moment of the story. It’s graphic, but not sensational; honest, but not distracting. Its voice is noticeably different from other books of similar genres, which is off-putting at first, but Byrne doesn't write this way unintentionally—rather, the style of the narrative highlights the depth of the overarching story.
Because The Actual Star operates on the principle of immersion as opposed to careful explanation, it doesn’t immediately whisk the reader away into some new, easily accessible adventure they can’t tear themselves away from. It’s disorienting at first and even frustrating to read as one tries to figure out what everything means and how these stories are connected. But every single thread, of which there are many, comes together in a beautiful, calculated climax as the story reaches its end. This novel would greatly reward a second read—even as I flipped through the chapters to write this review, I was stunned by the parallels of events, phrases, and imagery established in the first chapter that was included and referenced all the way through to the final page.
“It was real this time, not play, never again play,” Byrne writes from Ket’s perspective in the first pages. The Actual Star isn't casual play- it’s powerfully constructed theater, tugging at your wonder, curiosity, and confusion up until the very last word.