Title: A Glasshouse of Stars
Author: Shirley Marr
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Middle Grade; Magical Realism
Publication Date: May 2021
“You feel nervous, upside down, inside out, heart in your mouth, snakes in your stomach, intimidated and scared. But you don’t say so, in case the fear crawls out of your mouth and takes the form of monsters.”
Shirley Marr’s new middle-grade fiction is a bittersweet but hopeful story about a young girl immigrating to Australia. The story is written entirely in second person, an unexpected but welcome stylistic choice, putting the reader directly in Meixing Lim’s shoes to feel her anxiety, anger, frustration, and disappointment in a heart-wrenchingly close-to-home way.
You arrive in the New Land at the New House which you go on to dub ‘Big Scary’. The house, left to your family by your First Uncle who died unexpectedly, is bigger than anything you could have imagined. Despite kindly neighbours, you’re embarrassed by your hand-me-down school uniform, you have trouble understanding the New Language and fitting in at school, Ma Ma and Ba Ba seem to be having troubles too, and everything is new and confusing. Just when it feels like things can’t get any worse, tragedy rocks your family and the only solace you can find is in the rundown glasshouse in the back garden—which is more magical than it first appears.
Despite the intended middle-grade audience, Marr doesn’t sugar coat the experience or strip away the complexities of Meixing’s life. While you struggle to cope with a new house and a new school and the changed circumstances, Marr also expertly weaves in the struggle of navigating family dynamics, parental expectations, and starting new friendships. Dropped into Meixing’s shoes, you must cope with racist teachers, mean students, troublesome new friends, parents who don’t show affection the same way as other kids’ parents, and old family dramas that put you at odds with those who might offer solace. But amongst it all is hope; Mrs Huynh from next door who brings your family food, the kind language teacher Ms Jardine, your new friend Josh, and your aunty Aileen, who all seem to understand what you’re going through in their own unique way. The second-person narration means that every emotion hits that much closer to home, and you find yourself longing as much as Meixing for the moments of reprieve in Ms Jardine’s classroom or the magical glasshouse.
The magical realism adds an element of mysticism so that you’re not always sure which parts are imagination and which parts are real. This may be confusing for some readers, but overall helps reinforce the sense of what it’s like to immigrate to a new place. Everything is new, everything feels different, and reality feels blurred. Marr makes the familiar feel unfamiliar and vice versa throughout the story, lending to a sense of displacement.
This coming-of-age story is an excellent gateway for parents and teachers to start conversations with children about the impact of bullying and the simple ways in which we can show empathy. While meant for a younger audience, there is a definite benefit to older readers, as many of Meixing’s difficulties stem from interactions with her elders. There is a tenderness to the writing, which is beautiful and vivid and lends comfort amongst the anxiety. It’s as if Marr is saying ‘it’s going to be okay’ even as the story makes you feel like it can’t possibly end well. A Glasshouse of Stars is a timely and important read.