I get sent quite a few 'first novels', so it's a pleasant change to receive a novel which is the third from an author's pen. Of course, I love seeing the first-offs too - but when Star Gazing by Linda Gillard arrived, I had the experiences of Emotional Geology and A Lifetime Burning to which to compare it. Plus, Linda has been an e-friend for a few years now, and it's always lovely to hear from her.
I was in a position of knowledge when it came to Linda's second novel, A Lifetime Burning. I wrote about it last year, and though there were obvious aspects of the book which I hadn't experienced (shan't spoil it for you, but let's just say I might have a criminal record if I had experienced them) I am a twin and in a vicar's family, and so could understand those. I've never been so impressed by any literary portrayal of being a twin - Linda understood it so well. I can only assume she has found a similar level of empathy and recognition with blindness. Marianne, the central character of Star Gazing, is blind.
Blind, but not a victim. Bolshy, is our Marianne - "crabbit", to quote Keir. Keir is the man in the novel - an oil rigger who spends his time away from work living on Skye, he's a heady mixture of shy and sensitive and rugged and... does he exist? Linda has said that she was intrigued by the idea of writing a hero who might not exist - since Marianne has to rely on her other senses, she can't be sure that Keir isn't a projection of her imagination, and the reader spends quite a few chapters equally unsure.
But I haven't said much about Marianne, yet. She's middle-aged, and has been blind since birth. A widower, she lives with her vampire-romantic-novel writing sister Louisa (sisters Marianne and Louisa... the influence of Jane Austen hovering somewhere, perhaps?) and is a very determined woman. I always have a little trouble with people who are desperate to be independent - the sort of person who complains that people are being 'patronising' to them - but perhaps that's because I function best in a unit (back to the twin thing, mayhap). With Marianne, she has enough endearing features that I rarely wanted to throttle her. I can't be cross with a woman who says "Pure Enid Blyton - a much maligned author, in my opinion." My only criticism is that she so often mentions that she is blind. Her prerogative, I suppose, but I'm sure most visually impaired people can let the expression "You see what I mean" pass, without pointing out that they can't...
Star Gazing uses three narrative focalisations - Marianne, Louisa, and a third person narrative. Linda uses this skilfully, as she has done before, and the transition from Marianne's internal view to an external perspective highlights the smallness of Marianne's world - as she says, her experience of it stretches only as far as she can hear, smell or touch. The success of Star Gazing must ultimately hinge on the story, and the portrayal of blindness. As I said, I can't judge from my own experience - I'd love to hear from someone who can - but I was fairly convinced. It must be such a difficult task: how to describe the absence of sight from the perspective of one who doesn't know what she hasn't got? There is a strong theme of music throughout - I hardly knew any of the references, but visual things, especially scenery and natural phenomena, are often described to Marianne by their musical equivalent. The beautiful intricacy of a cobweb, for instance - which Marianne has only experienced as sticky and unpleasant - is compared to The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Star Gazing is not as ambitious or controversial as A Lifetime Burning - and consequently, where A Lifetime Burning was a great novel, Star Gazing is a good one. A very good one. It would be surprising if an author had two novels of A Lifetime Burning's power in them, let alone consecutively. Star Gazing, though, demonstrates Linda Gillard's continuing power as a storyteller, a creator of vivid and unusual characters, and a novelist who will hopefully soon get the recognition she deserves. I'm delighted that a fourth novel has already been written - can't wait.