Friday, 14 August 2009
Star Gazing by Linda Gillard
The day before I started Star Gazing I spent some time surfing sites with pictures of the place where I spent wonderful holidays as a child, the Ardnamurchan peninsula. Part of the pleasure of those holidays was the very long drive from the Central Highlands – up the Great North Road over the Drumochter Pass to Dalwhinnie, then turning westwards towards Spean Bridge and Fort William, before catching the Corran ferry. Once we had crossed Loch Linnhe it was still a long journey – a couple of hours to drive a little over 50 miles along a single track road, but at every bend the views were indescribably beautiful, especially the unforgettable first sight of the islands in the distance. Circumstance has dictated that I have only been back once as an adult, but I dream of seeing it again one day.
The route I describe is a little further south than the one undertaken by Marianne and Keir in Star Gazing, when he takes her to Skye to show her his home, but my own experience lent piquancy to their journey – such beauty, which Marianne can only see in Keir’s description, because she is blind. Much of his attraction for her is in the way in which he creates pictures out of the other senses, the tangible ones of sound and smell and touch, but important also is his awareness of intangible senses, like the location of the body in space. Much of the story is told in Marianne’s voice, and we become aware of her reliance on these other senses to maintain her independence, while her refusal to use a stick is a means of holding to a psychological independence, since she is doubly vulnerable, first by nature of her blindness and second by the early death of her husband.
One of the things that I liked about Marianne is that she isn’t entirely likeable – she’s prickly and sharp-tongued, “crabbit” as Keir says, and her relationship with her older sister Louisa is at times scratchy. Louisa’s is the other main voice telling the story, and her protectiveness and occasional impatience are entirely convincing. Their days are spent in the douce surroundings of Edinburgh, with visits to concerts and to the “Botanics”, so that the events which unfold during Marianne’s visit to Skye are a shock to them both, causing each to retreat defensively into her shell while she considers the future. The sense of the two women treading carefully round each other is well caught. The portrayal of these three characters, Marianne, Louisa and Keir, is delicate and sensitive – Gillard’s instincts about the ways in which people work are finely-tuned - which makes the contrast with Louisa’s assistant, Garth the Goth, all the more joyous – despite his Goth make-up he is down-to-earth and just plain fun.
I really don’t want to say too much more about the plot – this is one of those books which will absorb you completely (I read it in a day), and will stay with you long afterwards. The lingering image I have from it is the one I mentioned earlier – the body’s location in space, an image heightened by the involvement of other senses than sight and which recurs throughout the novel. Keir’s dream of his friend Mac falling from a rig platform is one such image, the isolated cottage on Skye another. It’s a book, too, with a strong spirit of place, with Edinburgh, Skye and briefly, Aberdeen, clearer for the the counted paces, the reliance on sound and touch. Which makes it all the more pleasing to be able to add that Star Gazing has been shortlisted for the first Robin Jenkins Literary Award which promotes writing inspired by Scotland's landscape. The winner will be announced on 24 August at the Edinburgh Book Festival.