There Will Be Stars - Billy Coffey

No one in Mattingly ever believed Bobby Barnes would live to see old age. Drink would either rot Bobby from the inside out or dull his senses just enough to send his truck off the mountain on one of his nightly rides. Although Bobby believes such an end possible—and even likely—it doesn’t stop him from taking his twin sons Matthew and Mark into the mountains one Saturday night. A sharp curve, blinding headlights, metal on metal, his sons’ screams. Bobby’s final thought as he sinks into blackness is a curious one—There will be stars. Yet it is not death that greets him beyond the veil. Instead, he returns to the day he has just lived and finds he is not alone in this strange new world. Six others are trapped with him. Bobby soon discovers that this supposed place of peace is actually a place of secrets and hidden dangers. Along with three others, he seeks to escape, even as the world around him begins to crumble. The escape will lead some to greater life, others to endless death . . . and Bobby Barnes to understand the deepest nature of love.

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Bobby Barnes is a mechanic and father to twin boys. He lives hard, drinks even harder. A personality trait that gets him in trouble the night he decides to drink and take his boys out for a night drive. Something distracts Bobby and in an instant his truck is plummeting off a cliff. In his final moments, what he believes to be his final thought on this earth ends up being "there will be stars"... whatever that might mean. 

 

But instead of death, Bobby finds himself waking up in a sort of alternate reality. In the first moments, it appears he's been transported back to the day of the crash, his boys happily watching cartoons in the living room. Confused but curious, Bobby carries out his day as he normally would, seeing the same neighbors and townspeople he interacts with every day. It takes him a few double takes, but the more people Bobby interacts with the more he starts to realize something is off. No one seems to be acting quite like themselves and it's creeping him out! What happened to him after that crash? Is he in some sort of heaven? Purgatory? Why does it feel like the Twilight Zone around here?

 

One of Bobby's acquaintances thinks Bobby is the one acting weird, asks him to visit with Dorothea. Again, Bobby knew her in life pre-wreck, but here she explains that he is "one of them", a group of people who died (in one way or another) and came through what's referred to as "The Turn", to end up in this reality. Though some variation to the days are allowed, mostly the townspeople end up reenacting their last day on Earth ad infinitum. Dorothea has pronounced herself leader in this reality and expects everyone to call her "Mama". Dorothea likes to say that this is heaven and anything you could ever want is here, but Bobby comes to see that she's running the place like a mob boss. Why does it seem like everyone is in fear of angering her? What is it he's not being told?

 

Given some time, things eventually settle into a peaceful, almost comfortable routine... at least at first. But little moments of creepiness seep through the calm veneer. Some of Bobby's friends meet up with him in secret, trying to let him in on the secrets Dorothea doesn't want out, but when Mama herself gets word of these "rats", lessons in obedience are quickly doled out. As terror grows, Bobby becomes consumed with finding a way out this place he now sees as some sort of hell. 

 

The plot here reminded me a bit of the movies of M. Night Shyamalan, even down to the surprises that aren't really surprises! I don't know what it was about this plot but most of it felt SO SLOW for such a potentially creepy premise. Felt like it took me forever to make progress, but finish it I eventually did. I stuck with it mostly for the characterizations. I thought those were done pretty well. It was pleasantly surprising to see what a dedicated dad Bobby was, given his struggle with alcoholism. I also liked the character of Juliet, her patience and kind demeanor made a nice balance in such an eerie, unstable environment and I found myself rooting for her and Bobby's friendship, because it seemed like she would be the perfect calming influence against his inner demons. I also liked that right from the very start she seemed like one of the few characters who was absolutely, without much hesitation, willing to risk the wrath of Dorothea to always tell Bobby the truth. I was also touched by the tender, bittersweet closing conversation Bobby has with his twin boys!

 

The plot is not the most fast-moving, but there are bursts of intensity in the action that give it a nice jolt from time to time. Mostly what I took away from There Will Be Stars was the allegorical bit, the way this story has a way of illustrating what can happen to a person when they make themselves their own worst enemy, not allowing themselves forgiveness for a past mistake (or mistakes!), even if everyone else has, essentially trapping themselves within their own mental prisons. I found a good message for the power and importance of self-forgiveness. 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: One character in this novel suffers multiple rapings and spousal abuse. 

 

 

FTC DISCLAIMER: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.