Excerpt from The Blind Astronomer's Daughter by John Pipkin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Blind Astronomer's Daughter

by John Pipkin

The Blind Astronomer's Daughter by John Pipkin X
The Blind Astronomer's Daughter by John Pipkin
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2016, 480 pages
    Sep 2017, 480 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts

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Chapter I


IN THE WINTER of 1791, some few weeks after Arthur Ainsworth's penumbral blindness reaches its inevitable and irreversible completion, he grunts for an inkpot, fumbles after dull quills, scavenges whatever paper is immediate to hand, and so begins to set down, in a desperate and meandrous splatter, an atlas that will guide his daughter to the elusive planet they have spent the better part of their lives pursuing. Sudden and unexpected, what he sees is no easy thing to convey. Here in his shuttered bedroom at New Park, high above the River Nore, just beyond the town of Inistioge in southern Ireland, the bedridden astronomer fingers the ribbon of silk tied over his eyes and works through the long calculations cluttering his thoughts. He strains his memory, calls on meticulous observations from years before, but now they carry him only part of the way.

Propped on blankets flecked with ink, he chews the tangle of gray hairs hanging past his forehead and presses hard as he writes so that he can feel the marks on the scraps of papers in his lap: calling cards and envelopes and old letters, brittle menus from tea merchants and pages torn from books of poetry and the yellowed remnants of old broadsides. His thoughts scatter and return, and it is difficult to hold them together in the unremitting dark. He sketches furiously while, from dumb habit, his bandaged eyes follow the erratic motion of his hand. Memory spangles the vault of his eyelids with stars, and he feels the vast spread of the heavens wheeling around him and it makes perfect sense that some men still look skyward and believe themselves at the hub of everything.

Caroline Ainsworth urges her father to rest. At first it is only her coming and going that makes it possible for him to track the passage of days. Mornings and evenings she brings saucers of boiled milk with nutmeg and cinnamon bark, and the spices smell of rich soil. She spoons it to his mouth steady and slow and he reaches for her good hand and misses and tries to tell her that this time he has it. This time he knows where to look—far beyond the greatest distance that any man has ever held in the wrinkled folds of his brain—but the thought crumbles to nonsense before he can find the exact words. Caroline touches the back of his wrist and tells him that there will be time to continue their work when his strength is restored and his mind has settled. She tells him that the tiny planet skimming the surface of the sun will wait, that no one else will find it before them, but Arthur waves her away with a sheaf of flung papers. He knows the dismal truth. His eyes are blistered past remedy; his sight will not revive.

But with this loss has come a recompense he cannot describe. Strange fits of clarity visit him here in the muddled gloom, and he must find a way to convince her of what he has found before it is too late. He wants to explain how the belated discoveries came twinned and how they return again and again unbidden. First comes the consolation that there is yet another unseen world circling the sun, and second, clutching the heel of its sibling, comes the sad understanding that even when his eyes were sharp and quick, he had always turned them to the wrong place. He had insisted that they must look toward the sun, for how could there be anything more beyond the deep sky's horizon, far beyond gravity's reach? But now the error is so obvious to him that it seems impossible he could ever have thought otherwise.

Small sounds flit through his bedroom and they do not escape his notice: the whisper of flames in the hearth and the hiss of floating ash and a soft scratching in the wall above his head and the creak of floorboards in the hall and the garrulous twitter of birds in the trees. And now and then these noises are drowned by the wind moaning loud through the tunnel of the unfinished telescope lying in the grass beneath his window. A monstrous thing—fifty feet of hammered iron and wide enough to swallow a man—he had planned for it to be the largest in the world, and with it he would have penetrated deeper into the sky than anyone had done before. And why? What has been his cause for searching the heavens day and night, for testing the limit of his reach hour by hour like a man trapped inside an expanding balloon? The reasons were as various as the days they consumed: to grasp the workings of the universe, to find something more beyond earth's fretful compass, to put his name to a discovery and secure fame's immortality, to be able to point to a map and proclaim simply: here I am. And so strong is this last yearning to stand at the center of things that generations of astronomers had built models of stupid complexity, wheels spinning within wheels, twisting nature's plain evidence to fit the narrow dreams of men.

From The Blind Astronomer's Daughter by John Pipkin, used with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing. © John Pipkin, 2016.

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