The Arm of the Starfish (by Madeleine L'Engle)

In amongst enjoying new books, and re-reading some of my favourite authors, I’m finding books that we’ve had on our shelves for years, but which I have never read. Several of them are by Madeleine L’Engle, best known for her ‘Wrinkle in Time’ trilogy (the first of which has recently been made into a film). I read one or two of them to my sons when they were teenagers, but the science fiction element didn’t really appeal to me at the time.

One of my sons loved the ‘Wrinkle’ books, however, so we gradually collected many more by L’Engle, most from charity shops or the Amazon marketplace. It’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve started reading them, and on the whole am liking them very much. Most are not science fiction at all.

A few days ago I picked up ‘The Arm of the Starfish’, which claims on the back to be a ‘mystery thriller’. It was written for older teenagers - the genre we would now call ‘young adult’ - so I vaguely expected something along the lines of Agatha Christie with teenage protagonists.

I was correct about the latter. Adam is the viewpoint character of the book. He’s sixteen, and very intelligent. He has been studying marine biology, working with an eminent scientists in the United States. We first meet him in the airport on his way to a small (fictitious) island off the coast of Portugal, to work for the summer with the celebrated Dr O’Keefe. His flight has been delayed several times due to fog. Out of the blue, he is approached by a very attractive girl around his age, who introduces herself as Kali Cutter. She says that she has important information about Dr O’Keefe, and that Adam needs to be warned…

Right from the first chapter, I could feel the tension. L’Engle had quite a gift of characterisation, and the confusion in Adam’s mind was easy to feel. I was pretty sure that Dr O’Keefe was Calvin from the ‘Wrinkle’ series, and that he was full of integrity… but so strong was the writing that I did wonder, for a while, whether Cali had a point. The action moves along solidly; not so rapidly that I lost track of what was going on, but with detours into sightseeing and conversation that kept the tension, and made it quite difficult to put the book down.

The biology project is perhaps unrealistic; Dr O’Keefe is studying the ways that starfish arms regenerate, wondering whether this can also apply to humans. I don’t know much about biology, or if starfish are indeed as closely related to humans as is stated. But that doesn’t matter. If it’s science fiction, it’s very well done, and the detail is minimal. The danger of such research getting into the wrong hands, however, feels all too real. The book was written over fifty years ago, yet the evils of ruthless greed are all too familiar.

Many of L’Engle’s books have a Christian theme, usually fairly low key. In this, there are two priests who have important roles; one sound and caring, the other not. The overall story has a clear good vs evil plot which could appeal to secular humanitarians or those of other religions.

There’s also an unexpected Christ figure, something I didn’t spot until it became clear in one of the last chapters. L’Engle doesn’t make the mistake of spelling out her beliefs, or writing forced conversations about Christianity. But the power of love is strong, and the importance of caring for everyone, no matter what their background or significance.

I wasn’t sure I liked this when I was about half-way through, and the climax to the book includes a shocking scene which I should perhaps have foreseen, but didn’t. But having finished it, I would rate it very highly. Not for young children, but teenagers who have read the later ‘Harry Potter’ books, or ‘Lord of the Rings’ might well enjoy this. And as an adult, I very much appreciated it too.

Definitely recommended.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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