I thought I had read all the Louise Lawrence books that initially grabbed my fancy, but when I happened upon the premise of this, her second novel, I had to read it because it sounded so bizarre: a girl is bitten by a rabbit and gains the destructive “power of the stars”. I was sure, from my recent reading of Lawrence’s Wyndcliffe, Star Lord, and The Earth Witch, it couldn’t be as radioactive-spider ridiculous as it sounded. It turns out to fit very much with the kind of late 1960s/early 1970s YA novel I’ve covered on Mewsings before — things like Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and Penelope Lively’s The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy — so that, in the end, I found The Power of Stars (1972) interesting for its preoccupations, even though I didn’t think it quite worked as a novel.
The setting is the borderland mountain region between England and Wales, and the cast is that old Owl Service/Earth Witch formula, the bickering trio of teens (two boys, one girl) with added class tension (two are working class, one is middle class). The girl is Jane Bates, 15 years old and the poorest of the three, who lives with her Granny as her mother abandoned her before moving abroad and breaking all contact (as with Owen in The Earth Witch). Walking home from school with the local lad she’s known all her life, Jimmy Keir, and an English boy, Alan Grant, whose divorced, soon-to-be-remarried mother has recently moved to the area, all three, separated in the dark of the village countryside, are distracted by a strange, powerful brightness in the stars. They hear a weird scream, but it’s only a rabbit, caught, somewhere in the dark, in a trap. The following evening, the three are again walking home when they find the poor thing, still alive, though out of the trap. (They find the trap, which seems to have been hit by lightning — it’s just a lump of molten metal.) Jane picks up the rabbit, intending to take it to a vet, and it bites her, deep in the wrist. Uncharacteristically for a rabbit, it hangs on, as though to make sure she’s thoroughly bitten. Jimmy flings the rabbit off her, and they take her to Alan’s stepfather-to-be, Dr Nick Mackenzie, who, once Jane has been taken to A&E, seeks out the rabbit, thinking he might find something unusual about it because of its behaviour. He and Alan bump into local oddity Marcia Cotterel, known to the area’s kids as the Batwoman, because she’s a scientist studying bats (also, they think she’s a bit crazy). Her dog, it turns out, was also bitten by a rabbit — perhaps the same one — and she’s also trying to find it, to see if it was infected by some odd new disease.
Things tick along for a while, with the trio of kids bickering lightly but constantly, in the way of bored teens, when two odd things start to occur with Jane. First, she seems to have gained a new fear of machines — though only at night, when the stars are out. Second, if Jane is particularly worked up, those machines suddenly fuse, or melt, or even blow up, as though hit by a blast of intense energy. Afterwards, Jane will usually be found alone in the dark, staring up at the stars, drinking in their light.
It turns out Jane has been infected by a sort of alien life-form, an intelligence that exists as tiny, neuron-like protozoa, simple on their own but somehow forming, together, a sort of intelligence. And it’s an intelligence that feeds off starlight and hates machines, perhaps because (Dr Nick suggests) they might have once become too reliant on machines in their own, more advanced, society that self-destructed, and now they’re trying to save us from the same fate, using Jane as a focus. (They also use her to drink up the experience of embodied life, something they’ve evidently been missing since becoming space-bound protozoa. That, and music.)
This hatred of machines, combined with bouts of the irrational need to destroy them, reminds me of The Changes. The BBC series came out in 1975, but Peter Dickinson’s trilogy of novels the series was adapted from were all out by 1970, and I can’t help wondering if Lawrence wasn’t proposing an alternative explanation for those books’ outbreak of irrational anti-machine violence. (Star-bound protozoa with a beef against the mechanical is a little bit better — though only just — as explanations go, than Dickinson’s Merlin-on-drugs.) But the idea of a rabbit bite infecting Jane with an alien life-form is less about scientific plausibility, I’d say, than a sort of imaginative pressure on the author to bring together the two archetypal forces that come out again in her later novel Star Lord: the science-fictional force from the stars, and the ancient forces of nature, only here they’re united, rather than being inimical as they are in Star Lord.
This is Lawrence’s second novel — her second published novel, anyway — and I thought it perhaps showed in a couple of structural weaknesses. The lengths she goes to in order to ensure her trio of teens are out at night (under starlight) in a machine (Alan’s car), far from home, near the climax of the novel, felt a bit too much like an author over-thinking things (they run out of petrol, then a tyre blows). And the chapter where Dr Nick and Miss Cotterel theorise on the nature of the neuron-like protozoa that have taken up residence in Jane’s brain relies a bit too much on some far-fetched guesses being taken by two scientists as the only likely explanation.
But it’s a short novel, and I enjoyed it for how much it fits in with the other books of the time. The constant tensions between the characters have that post-Kitchen Sink era air of gritty social realism, as do their goodnatured but cranky attempts not to give in to class resentments (Alan always has money, Jimmy never does); the writing style has that poetic terseness writers on the literary side of late 60s/early 70s YA seem to slip into (Garner eventually taking it to the extreme, but it’s also there in John Gordon and William Mayne); and there’s another theme of early 70s YA, broken families and the added emotional burden this places on adolescents who not only have to deal with puberty, but some sort of supernatural/science-fictional menace as well. (And Jane’s “power of the stars” feels very much like that horror trope that became increasingly prevalent in the 70s, of what I might call Teenage Telekinetic Breakout Disorder, or Carrie’s Syndrome.)
It’s perhaps more interesting when read as part of Lawrence’s own body of work and her development as a writer (I now want to read her first novel, the more purely SF Andra), or as one more part of early 70s rural fantasy (folk fantasy, as it might be called), so I wouldn’t recommend The Power of Stars as a first read if you’re interested in Lawrence, but it’s by no means a bad book. I’m still not entirely sure about the rabbit, though…