Book Review: The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter

John Pipkin's novel rooted in astronomy is as compelling as the brightest arrangement of stars beneath the vault of heaven

<i>The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter</i>

In John Pipkin's first novel, the highly lauded Woodsburner, he told the world about what happened in the lives of several people, both the real-but-fictionalized and the fictional-but-deeply-realized, when Henry David Thoreau accidentally set the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, on fire in 1844.

In his second novel, The Blind Astronomer's Daughter, Pipkin reveals what happens to a similarly researched and devised group of people, intimately or only tangentially connected, when their passions are set on fire – by the temptations of astronomy, of general scientific curiosity, of romantic fulfillment, and more, in the realm of England and Ireland in, mostly, the latter half of the 18th century.

German composer and astronomer William Herschel, that meticulous man who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, is (along with his sister Caroline) a major fact-based thread in this historical tapestry; the fictional Siobhan O'Siodha, secretly adopted child of the mad-like-Melville's-Ahab-was-mad astronomer Arthur Ainsworth, is another; and the gadget-wise blacksmith's son Finnegan O'Siodha is one more. "Tapestry," we say, leaning on the old metaphor; but this novel's more like VR, a hi-res and immersive world of glory-riddled struggle and strife conjured from history via research that, somehow, the author accomplished in fewer than 100 years. (Note: Only about six years. WTF, John, how?)

You want characters as vivid as the people you share your pub with? This novel has them. You want a primer to the historical underpinnings of modern astronomy and the socioeconomic environment in which it flourished? It's here. A view of the late-18th-century Irish uprising as viscerally depicted as, say, Saving Private Ryan? Look no further. A tempestuous love story? Bingo. How about a glimmer of clockpunk gearcraft within the fearsome engine of story? Roger that, citizen: John Pipkin has devised a brilliant orrery of life's rich pageant, as compelling as the brightest arrangement of stars beneath the vault of heaven.

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter

by John Pipkin
Bloomsbury, 480 pp., $28

John Pipkin will speak about The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter in the session "History Repeated," with Dominic Smith (The Last Painting of Sara de Vos) and moderator Erik Ankerberg on Sat., Nov. 5, 11:45am, in Capitol Extension Room E2.014.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Texas Book Festival
Texas Book Festival 2017
Texas Book Festival 2017
Lovers of the literary, you’re needed at the Capitol for this year’s TBF, stat!

Robert Faires, Nov. 3, 2017

<i>Uncommon Type: Some Stories</i>
Uncommon Type: Some Stories
A funny and creative short fiction debut that’s strong in portraying male characters but thin where the women are concerned

Elizabeth Banicki, Nov. 3, 2017

More Arts Reviews
Esther's Follies: The Laughs, the Gossip, and the Story Behind Texas' Most Celebrated Comedy Troupe
Esther's Follies: The Laughs, the Gossip, and the Story Behind Texas' Most Celebrated Comedy Troupe
In his history of Esther's, author Jesse Sublett follows the flow of four decades of frivolity

Robert Faires, Dec. 1, 2017

<i>Murder Ballads</i>
Murder Ballads
This blues-infused crime thriller suggests a number of Dangerous Things to Do Outside Shreveport Until You’re Dead

Wayne Alan Brenner, Nov. 24, 2017

More by W. A. Brenner
Theorist Festival Goes Multimedia on the Zilker Hillside
Theorist Festival Goes Multimedia on the Zilker Hillside
Tech haters gonna love hating technology (and vice versa) this Sunday

Sept. 20, 2017

When Is Austin Comedy a Sure Thing?
When Is Austin Comedy a Sure Thing?
Maybe on a Wednesday, definitely on a Saturday

Feb. 3, 2016


Texas Book Festival, Texas Book Festival 2016, John Pipkin, William Herschel

AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

Updates for SXSW 2017

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle