Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Cormac McCarthy is best known as one of America’s finest writers – he is the author of The Road, No Country for Old Men ­and what some critics believe to be his greatest novel Blood Meridian published in 1985.  Perhaps lesser known is that McCarthy works with the Santa Fe Institute – a research centre dedicated to ‘the multidisciplinary study of the fundamental principles of complex adaptive systems, including physical, computational, biological, and social systems’.

While at SFI in 2017, he wrote an essay The Kekulé Problem which examined the human unconscious and the origin of language.  His work at SFI perhaps goes some way towards offering an understanding of the theories McCarthy explores through the voice of Alicia Western in Stella Maris.  Alicia references August Kekulé and his work when she suggests that ‘the advent of language … was disruptive’ [175] meaning that there was consequently a disjunct between what is reality and what is merely opinion; what is narrative and what is commentary.

Stella Maris is the companion book to The Passenger both of which were published in 2022.  While The Passenger is a wide-ranging book – and a substantial one at that – focusing on Robert Western with occasional references to his sister Alicia, Stella Maris has a much narrower focus.  It is essentially an extended dialogue between Alicia and her psychiatrist Dr Robert Cohen at Stella Maris – ‘a non-denominational facility and hospice for the care of psychiatric medical patients’.  Alicia has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; she is twenty-years-old and a doctoral candidate in mathematics at the University of Chicago.

What follows is an exploration by Alicia of esoteric matters such as the nature of madness, the meaning and purpose of mathematics – and anything else except her brother Robert.  While much of the book is intellectually challenging, there are some parts where the meaning seems to lie just beyond the reader’s grasp.  An example is: You cant [sic] have your ambient reality put askew without becoming somewhat askew yourself [126].  ‘Ambient reality’ – a real thing – has been defined as the ultimate disruption as it alters the fabric of the universe and things happen before they happen.

But it is towards the end of the novel that the underlying issue in Alicia’s mind comes forth – her love for her brother Robert and how her conversation about him skirts around whether or not that love was illicit.  She says at one point ’I told him that I wanted to have his child’ and that ‘he should resign his brotherhood’ [163] presumably so that they could have a child together.

As in The Passenger, and with echoes of Ernest Hemingway, the master of spare and uncompromising writing, McCarthy employs Alicia’s conversations with her psychiatrist to explore the troubled inner world of Alicia.  Using simple declarative sentences and largely eschewing punctuation – as did Hemingway before him – McCarthy creates a sense of immediacy which drives the narrative forward.  While not reaching the heights of his earlier works, Stella Maris is a book worth the reading.

Stella Maris


by Cormac McCarthy

Pan Macmillan

ISBN 978 033045 744 6

$26.99; 208pp


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