The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter: Starts strong but loses focus and energy

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter by John PipkinThe Blind Astronomer’s Daughter by John Pipkin

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter by John Pipkin is the second book I’ve read this year that makes use of the story of Caroline Herschel, sister of famed astronomer William Herschel, though I’d say with less success than the first (The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown). Pipkin’s novel has some nicely lyrical passages and is rife with sharp historical and scientific detail, but the author seems to lose control of his story about halfway through, leading to a dissipation of effect.

It is another Caroline, not William’s sister, who is actually the focal point of The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter. This is Caroline Ainsworth, lost founding who becomes adopted first by an Irish smith’s family (she was discovered as a baby by the smith’s nephew Finn, himself an adoptee), and then by the family’s landlord Arthur Ainsworth. Arthur, whom we meet first as a young child, has left his London home for the clear night skies of New Park, the Irish estate he inherited upon his father’ death. Here, eventually assisted by Caroline, he scans the stars, growing ever more maniacally obsessed with finding a planet between Mercury and the Sun.

Meanwhile, over in England, William Herschel has similarly departed his home city (Hanover) and with the help of his sister Caroline is delving ever deeper into the heavens, discovering ever more stars and nebulae and, eventually, the planet that will make him world-famous. Though he doesn’t know it, William has become Arthur’s nemesis/rival, driving Arthur to ever-greater risks. Later, astronomy takes a back seat (though it never disappears) as political events began to overtake the novel’s characters. Finn and Caroline separately flee Ireland, he for Edinburgh and she for London, where they make new lives for themselves before eventually returning just in time to run into the Irish uprising of 1798.

Pipkin creates a rich, full realized historical world (something that will come as no surprise to readers of his first book Woodsburner, which focused on a pre-pond Thoreau and which won me wholly over) — its sights, its sounds, its traditions and transformations, obsessions and superstitions. Particularly vivid are his descriptions of the astronomical instruments and the work involved in using them, all of which is lovingly detailed (it wouldn’t surprise me if some might wish Pipkin had fallen a little less in love with these descriptions). The rich background is maintained even when the book shifts from the slow, silent patience of seeking stars and planets to the fast-paced cacophony and action of warfare.

The characterization is also deeply constructed, with both Carolines, Arthur, Finn, and a few others feeling like fully formed people: conflicted, often unsure of themselves or their path in life. As for The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter’s prose, Pipkin can certainly craft more than his share of finely honed sentences.

Unfortunately, while the above positives had me all in for the first half of the novel, they didn’t quite overcome the issues that began to crop up. One was stylistic. While, as noted, Pipkin is an excellent craftsman, really writing some beautiful sentences, there’s a sameness to the style and voice throughout that began to wear on me about a third of the way through and continued to do so to some worsening cumulative effect by the end. This was particularly noticeable thanks to so many characters; I felt there wasn’t a diversity of voice/style to match the diversity of character.

Similar to the prose style, the multi-layered meaning was both a strength and a weakness. There are a lot of echoes and pairings that run throughout. The most obvious of course are the two Carolines — both intelligent accomplished women in their own right threatened to be overshadowed in their role as helpmeet to the men in their lives — father Arthur and brother William, who themselves are an echo of one another. And this pairing has itself its own echo in the goal of the Herschel siblings to chart binary stars. When it works, this layering effect adds a stimulating, thoughtful depth to the novel. Here for instance, in the internal thoughts of William Herschel, is a nice subtle example: “He thinks then about the logic of grammar, the equation of sounds, the gravity that holds word and meaning together.” I like how these characters, who are steeped in astronomy such that it fills their lives nearly entirely, think in its language even when they are not thinking about astronomy per se.

At times though, it’s too on the nose (did we, for instance, need both of them to be named Caroline?). The idea of these people being observers rather than participants in life is mostly nicely done, but at times feels a bit heavy handed. Similarly, sometimes Pipkin raises the level of melodrama to a pretty thunderous (literally at times) level. An increase in implausible or contrived events doesn’t help.

My biggest issue probably was the manner in which The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter seemed to lose focus halfway through. The shift to the Irish rebellion, to Finn and Caroline’s love story, to another character entering the stage felt abrupt and none of that seemed to mesh very well. The novel seemed to dissipate in energy, losing the tight focus on character and theme (to an extent — there’s still some layering between those events and the stars) and become just too diffuse to hold my attention in any compelling fashion.

Which was too bad because as mentioned, the first half was quite strong for a number of reasons, which makes the second half all the more disappointing. I almost wish Pipkin had saved that material for an entirely separate novel. The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter therefore is a bit of a mixed bag. While I definitely prefer The Stargazer’s Sister, I think I’d still give a tentative nod to the question of whether one should pick up Pipkin’s novel, but it’s a very close call.

Publication date: October 11, 2016. In late-eighteenth-century Ireland, accidental stargazer Caroline Ainsworth learns that her life is not what it seems when her father, Arthur, throws himself from his rooftop observatory. Caroline had often assisted her father with his observations, in pursuit of an unknown planet; when astronomer William Herschel discovered Uranus, Caroline could only watch helplessly as unremitting jealousy drove Arthur to madness. Now, gone blind from staring at the sun, he has chosen death over a darkened life. Grief-stricken, Caroline abandons the vain search, leaves Ireland for London, and tries to forget her love for Finnegan O’Siodha, the tinkering blacksmith who was helping her father build a telescope larger than his rival’s. But her father has left her more than the wreck of that unfinished instrument: his cryptic atlas holds the secret to finding a new world at the edge of the sky. As Caroline reluctantly resumes her father’s work and confronts her own longings, Ireland is swept into rebellion, and Caroline and Finnegan are plunged into its violence. This is a novel of the obsessions of the age: scientific inquiry, geographic discovery, political reformation, but above all, astronomy, the mapping of the solar system and beyond. It is a novel of the quest for knowledge and for human connection — rich, far-reaching, and unforgettable.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. Well, he sounds like a writer to watch, and I might pick up the Thoreau book. Thank you, Bill!

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