Thursday, 9 May 2013

Guest Book Review: Amy Brill - The Movement of Stars

It is 1845, and Hannah Gardner Price dreams of a world infinitely larger than the small Quaker community where she has lived all 25 years of her life - for, as an amateur astronomer, she secretly hopes to discover a comet and win the King of Denmark's prize for doing so.

But she can only indulge her passion for astronomy as long as the men in her life - her father, brother and family friends - are prepared to support it, and so she treads a fine line between pursuing her dreams and submitting to the wishes and expectations of those around her. That line is crossed when Hannah meets Isaac Martin, a young black whaler from the Azores.
Isaac, like Hannah herself, has ambitions beyond his station. Drawn to him despite their differences, Hannah agrees to tutor him in the art of navigation. As their shared passion for the stars develops into something deeper, however, Hannah's standing in the community is called into question, and she has to choose: her dreams or her heart. 

Amy Brill’s novel is set in the mid-nineteenth century and follows the main character, Hannah’s, life over half a century. The story begins when Hannah is a young girl living with her father and brother in the small island community of Nantucket.

Hannah’s love is studying the stars and, with the support of her father, she is keen to spend as much time as possible with her telescope in the hope that she will be the first to see a comet and win the King of Denmark’s coveted award. Unfortunately, however, as she becomes a little older, the difficulties of adulthood make her life complicated. Hannah’s brother leaves the island, her father is looking to take his life in a new direction and Hannah finds herself mentoring a new student, Isaac.

As a woman, Hannah attracts a number of suitors but unfortunately she measures all of her relationships against the likelihood of being able to continue with her love and study of astronomy. Alongside her personal struggle for recognition and security as a career-minded woman, she Hannah must also deal with the expectations and prejudices of the small-minded, religious Quaker community she is a part of.

The Movement of Stars begins slowly with a character-driven examination of Hannah before the plot slowly evolves and hooks you into the narrative. Once the characters become established, the plot progresses and you find you will empathise with Hannah’s feelings and decisions. In many ways, Hannah is a woman ahead of her time. She finds it difficult to see why she should settle with a man for any reason other than love. She is motivated by her love of astronomy yet she finds it difficult to balance her need for financial reward with her need for a family life and this tension feels very real in the later stages of the novel.

A real strength of this novel was the amount of research that Brill had undertaken. The astronomical information was convincing and, for the most part, interesting. I certainly didn’t feel that this aspect was too technical. In addition, the intolerance of the islanders towards outsiders, sometimes ‘supported’ by their religious beliefs, was another aspect that placed a huge strain on Hannah.

After reading the novel, there was a sense that Brill had made the island almost became a character itself. It is presented as being magnetic, pulling and repelling characters throughout the narrative.

Hannah is struggling with the ideas of freedom and belonging. While she wants and needs freedom to further her career and become independent financially and emotionally, she also craves the stability of her family and heritage on Nantucket. Ultimately, it is this balance that she needs to control if she is to be happy.

Overall, a compelling read that has stayed with me long after the novel ended. Complex writing with a great sense of character and place. I’ll be looking out for Brill’s next release.

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