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.

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