It was pure chance that I stumbled upon this book. I was nearing the end of my first year at Holloway and the end of year exams, which had suddenly made university feel a whole lot more serious, were looming ever larger. In a bid to escape revision, I set off for Staines. I headed to Waterstones for a book; I wasn’t sure what I was looking for exactly, but I knew that I needed a book. And a coffee, but that would be found later. The store was closing in twenty minutes. I thumbed cover after cover (with care- I love books after all) and read blurb after blurb – but I just couldn’t find that je ne sais quoi paperback. It is said you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I’m so glad I did, because the cover art and intriguing title hinted at brilliant prose within.
‘Star Gazing’: the title of Linda Gillard’s third novel, would suggest a story about staring at the sky. Actually, no. This is a novel that encourages its readers to use every sense but sight. It is set partly in Scotland’s capital, and this is where the story begins, on a typical Edinburgh street lined with Georgian town houses. We meet Marianne, the novel’s heroine, our Marianne, climbing out of a taxi with bags of groceries, making her way to her front door. But, after a thoughtless young man cycles past and almost knocks her over, she drops her keys. This event is unremarkable in itself, until it is the platform for a major reveal: Marianne is blind. What is essentially a minor inconvenience is, in Marianne’s world, unsettling and frightening. Enter Keir, the helpful stranger who saves the day. However, as quickly as he appeared, Keir disappears, and Marianne’s sister, Louisa, begins to wonder if Marianne dreamt him up. Welcome to empiricism: seeing is believing, sight is proof – but what world is affirmed when there is no sight?
Marianne’s world is sensory. As she sits on a bench in the open air, Keir, who is passing nearby, is recognized by scent. So begins a journey of discovery for Keir and for the reader, as we begin to gain an idea of life using your other four senses. The novel takes in enchanting Edinburgh and the beautiful Scottish scenery, but it was the lexical landscape and the characters that flickered in my mind long after I’d finished the book. Gillard’s characters are real; you feel as if you could have passed them in the street this morning. They don’t so much jump off the page, as jump onto it. Her powers of portrayal are beyond good, and instead brilliantly imaginative. She teaches us to listen, to realise the beauty of hearing, how sounds can create aural paintings for the ears, and pen melodic poetry in the mind. It was not just a breath, but a whirlwind, of fresh air to read a book, which reminds us that we have five senses and that, in this world, there is so very much more than meets the eye.
The novel traverses tough issues, but with a soothing touch. The issue is not Marianne’s blindness- that is more an issue for others than for her. It is loneliness, not from a world she cannot see, but an oil disaster that made a widow of her in her twenties. It is arguably not Keir who is phantom-like, but Marianne’s late husband, Harvey, whose absence still haunts Marianne, two decades after the disaster. Keir offers remote and rough comfort in the form of an offer to visit his island home on Skye. He says he wants to “show” Marianne the stars. And that he does. As Marianne experiences life through her other senses, so do we. This is a book, which will make you notice and appreciate things you barely knew were there; the small sounds which mark out life for those who do not have the privilege of sight to guide them. Moreover, it is a story whose abiding message is one of hope. It doesn’t so much shine a light in the dark; rather, it gives the darkness words, shape and meaning.
After having been in contact with the author, I discovered that Star Gazing was not her intended title for the book. Her choice was Falling Water, Weeping Stone. It certainly captures the emotional heart of the book. However, Star Gazing implies a certain sense of looking beyond the everyday of this world, and that’s exactly what I found myself doing after reading this book. In fact, I realise I wasn’t looking at all. This book didn’t open my eyes: it closed them, and I’m so very glad it did.