Looking at the Stars is one of those books that fills you with equal parts dread and hope. I started reading it on a Sunday morning whilst travelling back, hungover, through the city. It was impossible to put down so I’d finished it by early evening; I was immediately and completely submersed in Amina’s story of a young girl with an intense imagination and very little else in the world.
Amina’s story starts with her waving at soldier’s who have supposedly come to liberate her and her family from a repressive regime, one that put a stop to her going to school. Despite obvious parallels with recent events in the Middle East Cotterill purposefully keeps Amina’s country vague. This was something I loved about the novel because things that seemed very familiar, such as the girls’ headscarves, weren’t tied to religion but rather to the repressive regime itself. It means that methods of exploiting power and oppression are explored rather than just negatively framing certain religions.
This book is marketed toward younger audiences but, like other good YA Fiction, is a brilliant read for anyone older as well. Amina’s journey and time at a refugee camp make for a great story in their own right but it is in how Cotterill captures the power of imagination in which the beauty of the novel truly lies. On several occasions I found myself tearing up just when Amina was telling a story and other characters reacted to it. Somehow, in a book where the characters have nothing Cotterill captures the beauty and humanity of simple storytelling.
The title of the book comes from the Oscar Wilde quote “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ And the whole book seems to explore this enigmatic declaration, and, I think, succeeds to show that in the most horrific of situations stories and dreams can save people.
It’s a beautiful book, one that I’m sure to re-read and pass around.