Mari HowardJanuary 15, 2019

In the Blink of an Eye

by Ali Bacon

About the author:

Ali Bacon lives near Bristol, where she's actively involved with the local writing community. She has read her short stories at many literary festivals. I met Ali when we were both reading from our work at the first Hawkesbury Literary Festival (in 2015) and we both hope to be there again this year, reading and participating ... (27th April ... Hawkesbury Upton, a delightful village in the English Cotswolds ...)

About the book:

 If there was a star rating beyond the (sometimes too frequently used) 5, I’d award it to this book. It really deserves to stand out.

A few years ago we had Ali Bacons’ first novel, A Kettle of Fish, a competent YA-style debut, set in present day Fife, which I really enjoyed. But in this second one, she has forged ahead, demonstrating great skill in handling factual historical material and transforming it into a captivating read.

In the Blink of an Eye is told from many viewpoints, (and I felt each chapter could be read as a stand-alone short story), building up a rounded picture of the life and ambience of the artistic community of Edinburgh in the 1840s to 1860s, and particularly the person of artist David Octavius Hill, known as D.O. (1802-1870). Viewing him through the eyes of the characters, Bacon gives us a consistent, broadly sympathetic, picture of the man. As the others talked with and about Hill, I could hear through the carefully constructed dialogue, which uses many words from Scottish vocabulary, the soft lilt of the Edinburgh region, and enjoyed searching for the meanings of words which I had not previously come across. To ‘swither’, to ‘keek’, '... that was a sair fecht... 'And the turns of phrase, 'So, will we go?' rather than 'shall we ...', and much besides, a thread through all the writing, which gives a wonderful atmospheric feel, the prose singing as it goes.  The charm of D.O. is clearly evident in his conversation, and it is not surprising somehow that although he was not the most talented artist of his day, he was Secretary to the Royal Scottish Academy.

Book-ending the story is the great painting of the ‘Disruption’ - the breaking away of much of the existing Church of Scotland to form the Free Kirk in 1843. It is a huge painting, and Hill, having taken on the task of painting the assembled Ministers present at this significant event, failed to complete what he began in 1847 until 1866. Accompanying the life of Hill from the1840s onwards are three tragedies which contributed both to his outlook on life and (the second two) to the delay in completion of this work. We meet him as the single parent of a small daughter, Chattie (Charlotte), his wife having recently died. The next significant event has already happened as the book begins: his seduction by the world of the new art of photography, and bonding with Robert Adamson, a scientific young man whose work on the process of photography was significant in moving this along to become an art form. He and Hill began working together in order that Hill had likenesses of all the Ministers he needed to include in the painting. But this led to a wider interest and clientele in portraiture. Adamson and Hill’s popularity increased as society photographers, Hill contributing his ‘eye’ to the composition of pictures, while Adamson worked on improving the physical processes. Adamson was, sadly, a delicate young man, and his death in 1848, after only four years of cooperation, plunged Hill back into mourning for his circumstances and continued his inability to plough on regardless with the difficult and drearisome task of a huge multiple portrait of black-clad men crowded into a huge dim room for a meeting.

Bacon carefully leads us along within an atmosphere of stoicism and acceptance which feels not only of its time, but somehow particularly Scottish. She frames the story within the life of a fictional character, a creation of her own the Reverend Malcolm Scobie. Scobie as a young minister had attended that Disruption meeting: as any older man, we meet him again and share his thoughts on his subsequent life, somewhat downbeat, accepting of his broken relationship with the daughter of a minister who did not approve of the break-away Free Kirk, and his solitary existence heading up the Free Kirk in Blairgowrie without the support of a wife or the distractions and pleasure of a family. This stoical acceptance again underlines the polite, quiet, giving-in of characters who hold their griefs and disappointments silently, and carry on with the serious business of being upright citizens in mid-Victorian Scotland. I continued to love the carefully constructed dialogue, which leaves you with a distinct knowledge of feelings, possibly deemed unsuitable, laid aside, unexpressed. The only exception to this is a brief affair which Hill’s (eventually) second wife, Amelia, has with an Italian sculptor, (who shares a surname with the more famous Buonarotti) with whom she works when training in Carrara, Italy. We contrast this sunny escapade for a brief chapter with the cool of everything Northern.  Whether or not it had any historical reality, (the sculptor is fictional), and whether it could have, abroad and well away from Scotland, is unimportant: it gives us a contrast of the cold North and the warm South which works well, like the marzipan seam running through the plan fruited bread of a Stollen. And nothing more is said of it.

So, six stars for a super second novel: I await the date and location of this author’s next …