The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill

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The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: It starts off feeling like a reasonably good historical fiction about a woman fighting 19th century norms in a small town. Then, surreptitiously, it adheres to your face till you realise that reasonably good has become really rather excellent.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: May 2013
Publisher: Penguin
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0718159924

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Hannah Gardner Price lives in Nantucket, a small New England island with fortunes based on the whaling trade. As it's 1845, Hannah's life is based on what her father feels is best for her. This is unfortunately reinforced by the fact that Nantucket is not just an island geographically but also insular in outlook and expectations as the claustrophobically small community revolves around the weekly Friends' Meeting of its Quaker faith. Why unfortunately? Hannah is highly intelligent, in her mid-20s, unmarried, practically runs her family's navigational instrument business since her twin brother dashed off to sea and has a scientific passion for astronomy, all of which are at odds with societal normality. However, this is just the beginning. When Isaac Martin, a ship's black second mate, brings Hannah a chronometer to repair he becomes a presence that will shake her community as it shakes her world.

This may be American writer Amy Brill's debut novel but she has form (as they say), having been an award winning journalist and short story author and this experience shines forth. I could quite easily go off the corny-ometer waxing (sorry!) lyrically on how Movement of the Stars lights the literary skies etc. However in deference to you I'll just adopt a modicum of English understatement, proclaiming that this beautifully textured novel is something a bit special.

Hannah is a fictionalised version of Maria Mitchell, a 19th century astronomer and citizen of Nantucket. I won't tell you what Maria did as that way lies spoiler country. We'll just leave Amy to introduce her to you via the end notes when the moment arises. And so back to the fiction…

Hannah and Isaac have a lot in common, both being highly capable but locked within the expectations and stereotyping of others due to gender and skin colour (respectively). They may have become acquainted through business, but this commonality and vulnerability draws them together in a relationship that's touching, delicate and downright dangerous. It's the two of them against Nantucket, the world in microcosm.

There's a wonderful depth of character even in the supporting roles. Hannah's father loves her deeply and desperately wants the best for his daughter, his idea of 'best' being accompanied by the cultural misconception of Hannah as helpless female needing protection. Even Dr Hall, Hannah's tutor underestimates his student's mind while also providing us with a wonderful 'Yay Hannah!' moment near the end. Then there's dear, sweet friend and co-astronomer, George; possibly the only person who understands Hannah's ambition and, indeed, Hannah.

Amy Brill's writing gently lulls us further in until we're completely hooked. There are little gems of historical information that, for me, trigged new understandings and fascinations. For instance, I had never realised that the pro and anti-slavery camps weren't polarised and even some of the most ardent abolitionists worried about the effects of mass manumission. If, on the other hand, you don't share my intrigue at the workings of a chronometer, these moments are short and easily skipped.

Talking of the author's writing, I must just draw your attention to the most beautiful, sensual, chaste non-sex scene I think I've ever read. Other authors please note: sometimes less is definitely more.

If you're looking for a book club read, this is the novel as it bursts with echoes of modern experience. The themes of gender/race glass ceilings and striving on, frustrated at being underestimated are unfortunately universal and eternal. It also has an ending that you'll be discussing for days and, believe me, you won't begrudge a second of it.

If this appeals and you'd like to read more historical fiction based around New England, Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks takes goes a bit further back to the days of the first settlers and comes highly recommended.

Buy The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill at

Buy The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill at


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