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

Gutenberg’s Apprentice – Sunday Herald Review

Men of many words

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Sunday 28 September 2014

The Gutenberg Bible, the first printed using the moveable type system, was a huge leap forward in the 15th century.

Prior to that, books were painstakingly copied by hand, a lengthy and expensive process that only the very rich or the church could afford.

Although it is Gutenberg’s name that has gone down in history – he was Time magazine’s Man of the Millennium – he was not alone in inventing and refining this new printing process. He was funded by Johann Fust, a Mainz merchant, and aided by Fust’s foster son Peter Schoeffer, who exchanged the refined world of a talented scribe for the filth and backbreaking work in Gutenberg’s workshop. The three men’s relationship ended acrimoniously and it was this that provided the spark for journalist Alix Christie’s debut novel, exploring the human story behind one of the world’s great inventions. The story is told in flashback as the mature Peter Schoeffer relates the momentous events of 1450-54, to an Abbot called Trithemius who wishes to record the details of Gutenberg’s experiments and eventual success in producing the first printed Bible.

Schoeffer is a successful young scribe working in Paris with expectations of rising to the top of his profession when he is suddenly called home by his foster father to Mainz. Johann Fust has decided to fund the work of one Johann Gensfleisch, better known to history as Gutenberg, who is secretly working on a new printing process. Schoeffer is horrified but deeply indebted to the foster father who took him in as an orphan, and he reluctantly joins Gutenberg’s workshop. He finds Gutenberg obnoxious and infuriating, a man sorely lacking the most basic social graces, who works his employees hard, rarely gives praise and keeps his true purpose a secret.

At first Schoeffer hates the work, especially the smelting as Gutenberg experiments with different metals to find the best one to create clean and precise letters. Slowly however he is drawn into the process and becomes as keen as Gutenberg and Fust to make it work.

Mainz comes to life with Christie’s vivid descriptions of the city, a power base in medieval Europe, full of gold- and silversmiths working for the church and nobility that earned it the soubriquet Golden Mainz. Merchants traded goods all over the world from Mainz, and its grand cathedral made it an important city for the church. Christie outlines the ongoing struggle between the merchant classes and the church for ultimate control of the city, a struggle that Gutenberg tries to avoid where possible. However, for some in the church the printing of the word of God is blasphemous, and Gutenberg and his collaborators must use all their wiles to outwit them.

Out of the three main characters it is Gutenberg who stands out, an unlikable man driven by his passion to create something revolutionary. His ruthless single-mindedness makes him intriguing and unpredictable. It is always a risk to make a leading character unsympathetic and Christie increases the risk by making Fust a rather drab man more interested in business than the happiness of his foster son. Schoeffer feels more like a vehicle to tell the story than a fully rounded character. Even the superfluous subplot of a romance fails to take the reader inside his head and heart, and he remains a cipher throughout.

Christie’s meticulous research shows on every page but ultimately the minutiae of the new printing process, from the carving of the letters to the clatter of the press, overwhelm her characters. As a trained letterpress printer herself, her love of her subject is obvious and infectious but the main players feel emotionally distant.

Fortunately, this is such a pivotal moment in history that the remarkable real-life events carry the story forward and knowing the outcome does little to spoil the pleasure of their eventual success. The bitter demise of the partnership is a sad coda to a story of such ingenuity but 48 examples of the Bible – some complete, some only parts – survive to this day. Hopefully Christie’s novel will bring much deserved credit to Fust and Schoeffer, but it is Gutenberg who lingers in the memory.

Posted in Book Reviews

After Before – Book Review for Book Oxygen

After Before
Jemma Wayne

Published by Legend Press 1 June, 2014

256pp, paperback, £7.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Jemma Wayne’s moving debut novel follows the lives of three very different women as their paths slowly intertwine. She examines how the echoes of trauma can become louder with time and how guilt and regret can poison even the happiest occasions. The novel opens at a stately pace but as the characters are developed it soon becomes an absorbing story of three women coming to terms with their pasts and finding a way to face the future.

Vera is a young woman with a wild past for which she is trying to make amends. She is engaged to Luke, a committed Christian, and clings to him as her past deeds threaten to engulf her. She copies his dedication to his religion hoping that the darkness inside her will fade away as she finds her way to Jesus and God. Luke’s indomitable mother, Lynn, is dying of cancer and Vera decides that she must look after her. Lynn is hostile and dismissive of Vera, not least because she sees in Vera the career she might have had herself had she not sublimated her ambitions and become a wife and mother. Lynn too has a secret, a locked room in her home that only she may enter. There she lets her imagination and creativity run free in contrast to the respectable, middle-class matron she presents to the world.

The third woman is Emily, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who is desperately trying to forget the horrors she has witnessed. When Vera gives up trying to win Lynn over it is Emily who becomes her part-time carer. Slowly the two women establish a kind of mutual respect that becomes friendship.

Wayne’s lead characters are vividly drawn, each very different and each dealing with guilt and regret in their own way. Vera is brittle, on the verge of shattering, and hangs on to Luke as if he were a life raft. What she cannot see is that to move forward she must learn to forgive herself. Lynn is full of bitterness for what might have been had she followed the career she had planned for herself. While loving her husband and her two sons, she can’t help looking at Vera with her burgeoning career and feel cheated.

The inscrutable Emily and her flashbacks to the Rwandan genocide provide the dark heart of the novel. Her fear during the vicious Hutu attacks is palpable and her restless need to keep on the move is unsettling. Emily thinks she has left the massacres behind in Africa but such trauma will not be quelled by force of will and must be dealt with. In the twentieth anniversary year of the genocide, she is a window through which these terrible events can be observed and remembered.

Wayne’s ambitious debut skillfully draws the strands of the three women’s lives together. She takes care to differentiate each woman’s voice as she takes the reader inside their heads to listen to their thoughts and fears and hopes. The Rwandan flashbacks are disturbing – as they should be – but in no way salacious. Instead they explain why Emily has become so quiet and self-contained. Wayne deftly draws the reader into a complex and gripping novel that rewards perseverance beyond its slow start.