We’re reading THE MOVEMENT OF STARS by Amy Brill

28 May

Liz Sourbut on a debut novel blending science and historical fiction


The Movement of Stars
Amy Brill
Penguin, PPB £
7.99 / Riverhead, HB $27.95

Hannah Price is a far better astronomer than either her twin brother Edward or her friend George. By rights it should be Hannah going to university and working in Cambridge, MA. But this is the 1840s and Hannah has to make do with a high school education and a small, ageing telescope. This she uses diligently, sweeping the skies from the roof of her home on Nantucket Island in search of comets. If she can find one that nobody else has yet reported, then she might win a medal and prize money from the King of Denmark, regardless of her sex, as well as the honour of having a celestial body named after her. This is Hannah’s greatest dream, and she sticks to it, despite some disapproval from her community, disapproval that grows stronger when she begins to give navigation lessons to a “negro” sailor from the Azores. As her friendship with Isaac Martin grows, so does the outrage of her strait-laced Quaker community.

In this, her first novel, Amy Brill combines a love story with a political condemnation of racism and misogyny while also squeezing in a fair amount of information about the astronomy of the period. Some decades previously, Carolyn Herschel, working in England, had discovered eight comets, also fighting against the odds and having to overcome her lack of formal education, and Brill has based Hannah on the real-life Nantucket astronomer Maria Mitchell, who won the King of Denmark’s medal for discovering a comet in 1847, so there is plenty of historical precedent for the events of the book.

Brill succeeds well in capturing the frustration and claustrophobia experienced by Hannah as she battles against the restrictions of a life dictated by her patriarchal religious community. She is lucky that her father supports her to an extent, but when he decides to move to Philadelphia he expects her to join him and will not allow her to remain on Nantucket unless she marries. Hannah has never felt an interest in any man until she meets Isaac, and she is completely unable to accept the physicality of her reaction to him. This, too, Brill describes very well, as Hannah initially recoils in horror from her feelings. And, of course, Isaac, as a negro sailor from a whaling vessel, is considered by everyone to be unthinkable as a husband for a middle-class white woman of the period.

Hannah is not always a pleasant character: sometimes she is self-pitying, sometimes arrogant, but she always tries to be principled and she never gives in. If the novel has flaws they lie in a slightly chaotic narrative style, with frequent flashbacks intruding into the flow of events. But the period detail is fascinating and brings to life a fascinating corner of American history.

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