Given the events that unfold over the course of this slim volume, it's an understatement to say that there is trouble in Paradais. Wielding her language sharply, Melchor paints a bleak portrait of inequality: the opulence of those living in Paradais, a luxury housing complex, contrasts sharply with the desolate living situation in Progreso, the narco-controlled village. At the center of the novel are Polo and Franco, two misfit teenagers whose lives are defined by entitlement to what they lack--a point brought home by Melchor's resentful, and even cruel, turns of phrase. By the end, when desperation, dissatisfaction, and youthful recklessness clash violently in a macabre final act, the reader is left to contend with the detritus of unfulfilled desires and lives torn farther apart.
Told in lyrical stories that link the destines of different characters, Kim's haunting novel unfolds during the Vietnam War and incorporates many actual events, notably Operation Baby Lift. While conveying a lot in a few pages, the author skillfully excavates layers of pain and trauma to reveal grace and the resistance of the human spirit.
The Actual Star is about many things: climate change, the tourist gaze, love, sex, entropy, utopias, the fall of the Maya, whether the Maya ever actually "fell," religious ritual, reincarnation, and caves. It's a big book, demanding and sometimes fussy in its careful construction. But it'll make you think, and the ending feels like putting your hand on a cave wall and feeling the heartbeat of the world through the rock. "Actual star"--indeed.