Novels featuring blind protagonists are surprisingly rare. Of course there are countless blind characters in fiction but they tend to be minor figures like the blind man in Amelie. They are not of interest for their own sake but only for what their blindness tells us about plot, meaning or other characters. This is in part because blindness is always on the verge of becoming metaphorical. It is also because the blind are always subject to the intrusive gaze of the seeing other. Sighted writers and readers are used to staring at blind characters. The blind beggar in Flaubert's Madame Bovary is such an example. He is not a character of any substance in his own right. Instead he is a hideous caricature who functions both to undermine Emma's romantic dreams and to emphasise Homais's blend of self-satisfaction and condescension.
I am finding it difficult to find novels where a character's blindness is treated as an incidental detail rather than as their novelistic raison d'etre. But recently I came across a novel which looks at blindness in a completely different way.
Star Gazing by Linda Gillard is a love story featuring blind protagonist Marianne. The novel's narrative perspective is shared between Marianne, her (sighted) sister and the (sighted) third-person narrator. The beauty of this novel lies in the fact that Marianne is allowed to talk about her blindness in a wonderfully frank and matter-of-fact way. She is not afraid to confront the reader with their own misconceptions about blindness from the first pages of the novel. Unlike the vast majority of descriptions of blind people (either real or fictional), Marianne is not depicted as a tragic or courageous figure. She does not elicit pity or sorrow. She is sharp, articulate, inventive and slightly cantankerous. Her life is just as full as a sighted person's. Her descriptions of how she navigates outside are particularly striking. The attention she pays to the smells and sounds she encounters on her walks through Edinburgh inspired me to pay much closer attention to non-visual clues as I walk (or run) around Oxford. Marianne's accounts of the world, like Cheryl Krueger's magnificent Parisian smellscape, shows us that sight is not necessary in order to interact with the world.
There are some problems with this book. Marianne's stubborn refusal to use her white cane in some situations suggests she is not yet proud of her blindness. Indeed the fact that she worries that her unborn child will inherit her condition suggests that on some level she has internalised the widely held believe that blindness is a tragedy.
But despite this, Star Gazing manages to present blindness as an exciting, even enriching state. Anyone faced with sight loss, or curious about what life without sight is like, should read this book.
With thanks to literatea for telling me about this book.