Book Review: The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson

I confess, I have sort of a thing for Jack the Ripper; I find the historical period fascinating and the case particularly intriguing. Like other unsolved mysteries, it’s sort of become a holy grail, even as it seems increasingly unlikely that we will ever find out who he was. There are also so many parallels between Jack the Ripper and modern society, where unsolved violence against women is a problem in many nations, and I find it interesting that so many of us continue to be compelled by the Jack the Ripper narrative when there are unsolved cases of a similar nature happening right now.

And I’m a huge fan of some of the pop culture treatments of Jack; I loved From Hell, both in film and graphic novel form, for example. There’s something about the case that is just ideal for moody, atmospheric depictions. People drifting through London fog, dark alleys, clanging bells, bustles…it’s interesting to see how different creators play with it, and where they take the story on its next incarnation. Thanks to them, the Ripper, and his victims, are unlikely to be forgotten, and that in itself is a remarkable accomplishment.

So often, the victims in crimes like this become lost to the shadows of time. Their names and ages are forgotten, as are the details of their lives. Sometimes the name of the killer lingers on, but the victims are just a means to an end, the vehicle for the story and not the story itself. This hasn’t been the case here, perhaps because of the methodical brutality of the crimes, and I love that the names of poor, disadvantaged women scrabbling to make a living on London’s streets will be remembered long after notable figures of the time.

Johnson took the story in a slightly different direction; rather than writing historical fiction, she set her book in a modern day, with a copycat killer stalking London while our heroine, Rory, adjusts to life at school after moving over from the US for the year. I don’t want to give away plot components, because that would be no fun at all, but let us just say that Rory is set off on a whirlwind adventure that completely changes her worldview and plunges her into an environment she didn’t even know existed.

It’s a book that starts out in a sly sort of way; we see Rory as slightly naive and excited, trying to get ready for the big transition to a challenging school in a new environment. She’s quickly struggling with schoolwork, learning that there’s a huge difference in expectations between her old and new schools. She bonds with her roommate, the two girls sharing the experience of being far from home. She starts a flirtation with a boy that looks like it might lead to romance. You may be lured into thinking this is your basic boarding school book with murder mystery in the background, but you will be wrong.

In the background, Jack the Ripper copycat killings move closer and closer to Rory and her friends, as their school is set in the heart of the Ripper’s stalking ground. Slowly, the book becomes darker, more sinister, but not in an overwrought way. Rory begins to learn that there’s something about her that’s slightly different from the people around her, and then the pace of the book really picks up as the police struggle to hunt down the killer before he has a chance to claim another victim.

There are some now-classic YA themes going on here; Johnson neatly dealt with the parent problem by putting Rory in boarding school, for example, and Rory is constructed with a certain amount of calculation to give her that mix of special traits and flawed humanity, to keep her from feeling too artificial. But The Name of the Star isn’t formulaic, and that makes it rise above.

Rory is sharp and funny, but she’s not snarky. Her wit isn’t acidic, but more quirky and silly; much like Johnson herself, as readers may recognise if they follow her on Twitter. There are some fun puns and plays with words in the book to keep it lively and engaging, and I love that Rory references feminist issues in a way that feels naturally worked into the plot, rather than presented stiffly as a lesson for readers. She’s a well-rounded character who doesn’t take crap, but has vulnerabilities like the rest of us, and isn’t afraid to admit that she’s passionate about some topics.

I also love that, in school, she’s somewhat average to ordinary. She’s not presented as an amazing genius imported from the United States, but someone struggling with the transition from being a big fish in a small pond to being thrown into the ocean. There’s a note of humility there that keeps her likeable; unlike characters who seem to have it all in every department in a lot of fantasy and paranormal YA, Rory is a pretty ordinary girl, and that makes her all the more likeable and accessible for me as a reader, right down to her, erm, academic dishonesty in some situations.

Not being a London native (or even a frequent visitor), I can’t speak well to the authenticity of the setting, but I do note that Johnson spends a lot of time in England, and I think that really shows in The Name of the Star. We see Rory’s encounters with her environment through the lens of an American adapting to the cultural differences between the US and England, and they feel like echoes of Johnson’s real-life experiences, as well as my own. It’s often small things that leave you feeling completely disoriented and far from home when you’re traveling or living abroad, and Johnson really captured that.

Overall, it’s a fun read, and it’s a good read; I stayed up all night to finish because I needed to know what happens next, and maybe that’s the most telling recommendation of all.