Posted in Book Reviews

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter – Herald Review

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter
John Pipkin
Bloomsbury, £18.99

AMERICAN author John Pipkin’s second novel is set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and chiefly concerns the fate of two women called Caroline. Caroline Herschel is based on a real person, while Caroline Ainsworth is Pipkin’s invention. Their stories are set in a time when exploration of the sciences flourished, especially the study of the night skies, provoked by The Great Six-Tailed Comet of 1744. Visible in London for weeks, it scared some into believing, “that there is a hole in the sky’s vault leaking the bright essence of heaven itself.” It was also a time of revolution. The recent French Revolution was descending into a blood bath while discontent in Ireland grew.

Caroline Ainsworth has grown up in the comfort of a grand house in rural Ireland with her widowed father, Arthur. He has become obsessed with astronomy and Caroline, considered unmarriageable because she has a withered arm, becomes his willing helper. She is faster than her father when it comes to the complex mathematics involved in plotting and predicting where the planets should be. Together they dedicate their lives to probing the night skies and recording their observations. Arthur is convinced that a new planet is waiting to be found, one he calls Theodosium, after his late wife, Theodosia. When musician and amateur astronomer William Herschel declares that he has found it, Arthur loses all reason. He looks at the sun through his telescope in a vain attempt to prove Herschel wrong and before long is blind. When Arthur sickens and dies, Caroline finds out the truth of her origins. Left penniless and feeling betrayed by Arthur, she leaves for London and a new life.

For anyone not familiar with astronomy, but also for those who are, Pipkin’s detailed explanations of how Arthur and Caroline study the night skies will prove fascinating. Their instruments are basic and their telescopes are crudely made by local tradesmen. The long, slow process of casting and polishing the special mirrors used in telescopes reflects the the long, slow process of mapping the planets and stars.

Caroline Herschel was the sister of William Herschel who became Astronomer Royal to the court of George III. Initially, William came to Bath to pursue a career in music but soon his hobby became all-consuming after he discovered the planet Uranus. Caroline’s growth had been stunted by contracting typhus and she had the tell-tale scars of smallpox on her face. Like the other Caroline, she was judged unsuitable for marriage and became a drudge in her mother’s house. William brought her to England and she became his housekeeper and soon his assistant as they investigated the skies. Caroline meticulously noted down William’s observations, what she called, “minding the heavens”. Although overshadowed by her brother, Caroline would go on to discover eight comets and received a small stipend for her work from the king. She was the first woman to be paid for her work in astronomy.

Arthur Ainsworth was obsessed with discovering binary stars, pairs of stars that help astronomers map the heavens. Pipkin weaves this theme of couples into the novel. Caroline and Arthur Ainsworth, Caroline and William Herschel, Arthur and William, and most prominently, Caroline and Caroline, whose lives closely mirror each other. Then there is Caroline Ainsworth and Finn, the blacksmith’s nephew with whom she falls in love and who brings her back to Ireland as rebellion breaks out.

The 1798 Irish rebellion against British rule, inspired by the French and American revolutions, was a bloody and brutal affair that lasted four months. Pipkin does not shy away from describing the cruelty and horrors committed on both sides. As Finn is forced to join the rebels, Caroline Ainsworth patiently waits for his return.

Until the latter stages of the novel, it feels as if one strand of the story isn’t relevant and the effect is a little disjointed even when it is resolved. The tale is told in the third person, focalising on each of the main characters in turn. However, the authorial voice is strong which means that the characters sometimes feel as distant as the stars they observe.
Pipkin’s novel is a lyrical meditation on what it means to be human in an ever changing world. The vastness of the heavens is matched by the passions of the men and women who explore it. Beautifully written with layers touching on science, politics and social change, it is a novel to be savoured and not rushed.

Posted in Book Reviews

Beside Myself by Ann Morgan – Independent on Sunday Review

Ann Morgan’s debut novel is a dark tale about a dysfunctional family and how one child struggles to survive the betrayal of those closest to her.

Morgan tells the story in flashbacks through the first person narration of Helen and, in alternate chapters, through a third person narration in the present day.

Helen and Ellie are six-year-old twins. Helen is the older and the leader; Ellie was deprived of oxygen at birth and is a little slower than her sister. They decide to play a joke by swapping identities to see if anyone notices. No one does and the twins are delighted by their prank. The next day Helen wants to go back to being herself but Ellie refuses. Helen protests that she is not Ellie but no one believes her.
It seems she is trapped in a joke that has long ceased to be funny. From being the leader of the duo, Helen finds herself becoming the “problem” child as she embarks on a self-destructive existence and ends up in an institution.

As Helen becomes estranged from her family and caught up in a downward spiral of drug abuse and mental health problems, Morgan’s pacing of the book is vital. When Helen is depressed, the writing slows along with her mood. When she goes into a manic phase, the writing speeds up and becomes intense and vivid, full of unconventional ideas, unexpected connections, and various voices that drown out reality. The pace is breathless and Morgan sweeps the reader up in the euphoria of the mania.

In the present day, Helen discovers that her sister is now a daytime television star, calling herself Hellie Sallis, a curious blending of the twins’ names. Helen’s work history has been more a case of keeping her head above water, including a spell as a prostitute. A brief job in an advertising company lets her artistic talent flower but her past catches up with her and she is once more plunged into despair. She is shaken out of her torpor by Nick, her sister’s husband, who needs her to speak to Hellie, now in a coma after a car crash.

Morgan’s novel is an ambitious undertaking which poses many questions about the nature of family and identity. Does Helen go off the rails because she is treated differently as Ellie, or was that always her path? Did the twins really swap identities? Disturbing, thought-provoking, and ultimately hopeful, this is a moving and accomplished piece of writing.

Beside Myself, by Ann Morgan. Bloomsbury £12.99

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The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War, By Lara Feigel Bloomsbury £25 – Reviews – Books – The Independent

The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War, By Lara Feigel Bloomsbury £25 – Reviews – Books – The Independent.

My review of Lara Feigel’s fabulous biog of five writers during World War Two.