Friday 10 September 2021

In A Town Called Paradox by Miriam Murcutt and Richard Starks

shortlisted for Book of the Month


“I wasn’t looking for Marilyn Monroe… even though I knew she was in town filming River of No Return. So begins In A Town Called Paradox – set in Utah during the 1950s when the Big Five Hollywood studios arrived to film their blockbuster movies. Corin Dunbar – banished to live with her aunt Jessie, an obsessively religious spinster who runs a failing cattle ranch in Utah – hates her new life until Hollywood transforms the rural backwater of Paradox into a playground for glamorous stars. Seduced by the glitz, Corin finds work with the studios, but after a brush with the casting couch, channels her growing ambition into saving the ranch—the jewel of the Dunbar family for three generations. When Corin falls for Ark Stevenson – a charismatic stranger drawn to Paradox by his fascination with the movies that are filmed there – her future seems bright. That’s not the outlook facing Yiska Begay, a Navajo on the run from prison. These three different lives unexpectedly collide as each of them seeks their own kind of freedom: Corin is determined to break free from the restrictions imposed on her by society; Ark yearns for a spiritual freedom after he suffers a horrific accident; and Yiska is desperate to regain the physical freedom he unjustly lost. In a gripping climax, Corin is faced with an agonizing decision: should she win them the freedoms they crave; and if so, how will she bear the heartbreaking cost? Told mainly by Corin—now a middle-aged woman still haunted by her dilemma—In A Town Called Paradox is a compelling read that redefines the meaning of love as it asks the question: If each of us has a life story, then who determines how it unfolds, and how it should end?"

Sometimes, one stumbles upon a gem. It doesn’t take more than a couple of pages before I realise  In A Town Called Paradox is one of those rare, glittering reads that somehow traps the reader immediately and does not let go until the end. 

Allow me to introduce you to Corin Dunbar. She is twelve, angry, hurt and confused. Her mother has recently died and for some inexplicable reason the father she adores and idolises has packed her off to be brought up by his sister—in Utah. To Corin, that’s like being exiled to the moon. Plus, she has no idea what she’s done to have her father abandon her like this—and especially in a dump like Paradox.

But Paradox isn’t that much of a dump. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, Paradox sees a steady stream of visitors—people come all the way from Hollywood to shoot one successful Western movie after the other. The intrepid mayor of Paradox has invested heavily in creating the settings required to attract the film industry. Hollywood stars add a certain sizzle to life, and more or less every inhabitant in Paradox is at one time or another roped in to be an extra. 

As the years pass, Corin’s emotional wounds heal—at least on the surface. She finds solace in the  magnificent Utah landscape and in the life on the ranch her aunt owns. We are now in the early 1960s and girls are generally expected to grow up, marry and have babies. Corin has moments when she wants more out of life, and one day, she’s invited to come along to a star party—a party that will change her life forever. 

Time to introduce Noah “Ark” Stevenson. When we first meet him, he is nine, angry, hurt and confused when his missionary parents decide to uproot him from the Amazon village he calls home and send him to England for adequate schooling. Where his parents detest the jungle, Ark loves it—except for the fact that he cannot see the stars from below the Amazonian canopy. And stars are Ark’s consuming passion—together with Western movies—which is why, many, many years later, he arrives in Paradox to teach the locals about the stars by arranging “star parties”.

Except in Paradox, a star party is a party with Hollywood stars.

Corin is entranced by this young Brit who speaks so passionately about the stars. Stardust, he tells her, we’re all made of stardust. And then he explains how the stars we see are ancient, ancient things, separated from the Earth by so many lightyears they may well have fizzled and died eons ago. But when a star dies, it emits matter—stardust—and this fine dust is in every atom, every particle. When we breathe, we ingest stardust. When we drink water, we swallow it down, thereby binding us to all the people who have lived before us and all who will come after. 

His theories resonate with Corin, and soon enough these two young people are sharing all their secrets, all their pains and losses with each other. They fit together, somehow, and in a matter of months they marry. Happily Ever After awaits. Or not.

In a vivid prose that recreates the stunning Utah landscape, the damp green Amazonian jungle and the interiors of an English boarding school with similar ease, the authors deliver a story about life, about the brevity of it, and the sheer magnificence of it, no matter how short our  allotted lifespan. It is also a story about love and how this complicated, tangled emotion can demand that we do things we did not believe ourselves capable of.  

This is a book in which astronomical theory jostles for space with information about everything from the sad fate of the Navajo Nation to how to milk a bull of his semen. Not once does all this imparting of knowledge come close to a dreaded info-dump; it is all done so elegantly this reader merely absorbs. Add to this an impressive cast of extras—all the way from Corin’s aunt Jessie, burdened with secrets of her own, to the distinctly dislikeable and racist town sheriff, to the Navajo Yiska—and you have a story that just gives and gives. Yes, there are tears, but ultimately, In A Town Called Paradox is about hope.  

After reading In A Town Called Paradox, I will never look at the stars again without thinking of Ark Stevenson—and the stardust that lives within each and everyone of us.

Thank you, Ms Murcutt and Mr Starks, for an emotional, gripping an utterly rewarding read! 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Anna Belfrage
 e-version reviewed

our next review will be on Monday

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