Del Hanks is arrogant, entitled and self-involved. Worst of all, she’s an untrustworthy narrator. There are moments when her ambition is relatable, but for the most part, she attracts more pity than admiration as a protagonist. As a result, depending on the reader’s temperament, Black Star can be difficult to get into.
Black Star by Maureen Medved is a novel about a prickly academic on the verge of tenure, as well as on the verge of insanity. The story follows philosophy professor, Del Hanks as she carefully manages and manipulates professional and personal relationships, and slowly cracks under the pressure to publish a second book. In the first few sentences of Chapter 1, the reader is introduced to the linchpin of Hanks’ insecurities: a recently hired, younger professor with viral Internet fame. “Everything was perfect until Helene LeBec infected our university. A lesion of carcinogenic proportions capable of rotting and destroying departments and even entire institutions of higher learning.”
Hanks’ flare for the dramatic — or rather, Medved’s dark wit — is this novel’s redemption. There are times when Hanks doesn’t understand what’s happening to her, and the reader’s understanding is obscured as a result. Yet, the story is thrust forward by interpersonal relationships and caustic interactions that are as hilarious as they are cringe-worthy. As the protagonist’s grip on reality slips, Black Star’s genre blurs into a crime-thriller, psychologically suspenseful and hard to put down.
Black Star is about an exaggerated, toxic academic environment, and how one professor’s ambition unwillingly puts her at the centre of betrayal and sexual exploitation. It’s like classic cautionary folklore for wannabe university professors, a story you would tell your friends and family to dissuade them from entering the dark forest of tenure-track. Little Red Riding Hood-philosopher and the Big Bad Wolf-colleagues, or vice versa.
In this sense, I imagine that Black Star is especially entertaining for people already established in academia and / or the literary world, those who can discern the absurdity and laugh. For those on the periphery, Black Star may push them further away.