Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Starfish Girl by Athena Villaverde

“In an underwater hell, the only hope of survival lies in the mind of a bizarre young girl…… with a starfish growing out of her head.”

That is what I envision the tagline to be if Athena Villaverde’s superb debut bizarro novel ever got optioned to the big screen.  Actually, I hope that this book will get optioned for film because this is the most cinematic novel I have read in quite some time.


 In a post-apocalyptic underwater dome, there lives a girl with a starfish growing from her head. Her name is Ohime. She is the starfish girl.

 Alone in this world, Ohime must fight for her life against lecherous crabmen, piranha people, and a yellow algae that is causing humans to mutate into fish. Until she meets Timbre, a woman with deadly sea anemone hair. Ohime thinks she is safe with her new protector and friend, but Timbre is on the run from a violent past. Now they must escape Timbre’s former master, the evil Dr. Ichii, who is determined to conquer the underwater dome . . . and destroy the starfish girl and her friend in the process.

 Starfish Girl plays out like a finely tuned exploitation flick.  There is an impossible mission, some amazingly cheesy scenery and an undercurrent of unspeakable dread that flows just below the surface.  I loved those off-beat exploitation films growing up but I have never really gotten that feeling from a book….until now.  Villaverde has created the perfect exploitation anti-hero with Timbre, giving her a sick and twisted back-story that make her personal journey for redemption all the more powerful. She is a certified badass mama that one can’t help but cheer for. Timbre is pitted against the unthinkably evil mad scientist known as Dr. Ichii.  Together these two characters engage in some of the most off-the-wall battles and banter that you are likely to find in genre fiction.  They are both searching for a hidden vessel that will bring the few remaining survivors to the water’s surface so they can start to rebuild civilization.  The vessel’s exact location lies in the mnd of the innocent little Starfish Girl, Ohime. If that doesn’t sound like the perfect premise to a grainy film being shown on a 42nd St. theater screen, well then, I don’t know what does.

Villaverde simply lets the story flow as we follow Timbre and Ohime on their quest to save humanity.  Despite the delightfully strange scenery, the story seems to grow and flourish in a very organic fashion- leaving the impression that no plot point is being forced or contrived.  In the end, this is the real strength of the novel.  This is not a bizarro novel that is trying to tell a story, this is a wonderful story that incorporated the elements of bizarro.  There is a real emotional attachment that the reader will make with the these rich and colorful characters.  There are moments of sadness followed by bursts of sheer jubilation as we are sucked into this underwater world inhabited by ghastly monstrosities and flawed protagonists.  This type of attachment is hard to come by in a genre ruled by blood and guts and this is really what sets Starfish Girl apart.

Villaverde’s prose is very simple , with each word chosen for maximum impact.  The net result is a story that moves at a very brisk pace with absolutely no filler to be found.  Villaverde writes her novel like a screenplay- only the essentials are included and the rest is left to play out in the readers mind.  This is the perfect style for this type of novel.  The author is smart enough to never let the words interfere with her stellar story.
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