Jul/Aug 2018  •   Reviews & Interviews

We See the Stars

Review by Ann Skea

We See the Stars.
Kate Van Hooft.
Allen & Unwin. 2018. 329 pp.
ISBN 978 1 76063 252 6.

I tried to do some counting, but I couldn't hear enough things to count more than four or five, and it was too hard to see any colours in the dark. Superman opened the bedroom door and signalled for me to get up, and I followed the ends of his cape down the corridor so that I wouldn't trip.

Simon is eleven. He has not spoken for several years, and he lives in a world of his own, sensitive to colors, sounds, textures, and touch. His younger brother Davey and Superman are his closest friends, but he is intelligent and imaginative, although other children think he is weird.

When his new teacher Ms. Hilcombe takes an interest in him, Simon thinks of her, too, as his friend. She tolerates his growing curiosity about her, and at one point, she imparts a secret to him she makes him promise never to reveal. So, when she suddenly disappears and the police become involved, he believes he knows where she is, but he can tell no one.

Cassie, who was "famous because everyone was scared of her," is a tough and resilient girl with a deformed hand. She sits behind Simon at school, and because of their shared oddness, they seem to understand each other. "Numpty," she calls him, and together they go to watch the police dig up Ms Hilcombe's garden. Then, when the police have left, Simon persuades a reluctant Cassie to break into Ms. Hilcombe's house with him. What he finds, he uses to aid him on his search for Ms. Hilcombe. He imagines all sorts of terrifying scenes, and in the final chapters of the book, as he wanders through heat-seared land trying to follow a rough map and with only Superman and an elderly ghostly figure called Albert to help him, the reader shares every step of the way. The situation is vivid, gripping, and moving.

In Simon, Kate Van Hooft has created a character and a world that allow the reader into places and situations we recognize through Simon's descriptions, but which he interprets very differently. Simon remembers incidents from his childhood that help to explain his condition and that of his mother, who has retreated from the world into a darkened bedroom. We understand the difficulties of his sharp-tongued Grandma, who often looks after him and Davey. And he remembers his Grandpa, who became more and more confused and is now in hospital.

Grandpa once told him a bee always leaves its sting behind: "You'll never get them out once the sting is in—little known fact about bees." Simon imagines the bee that once stung him building a honeycomb inside him. When he is stressed, the honeycomb grows, and he can hear the bees in his blood and veins. There is also a bird trapped inside his rib-cage that gets so agitated it loses its feathers. It helps to describe how it feels when he suffers an attack of asthma. The counting helps when he feels an "angry" coming on. And Superman is always there for support.

Like Mark Haddon's book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Kate Van Hooft's We See the Stars is good reading, and at the same time it gives us some understanding and arouses our sympathies for children whose experiences, perceptions, and behavior are very different from what we expect. This is a haunting and absorbing story.


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