So many remarkable books published this year that have captured unique experiences in raw, honest, powerful ways. Ones that particularly stand out to me are The Lido by Libby Page, and The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder, by Sarah J. Harris. These have very different themes, characters, and styles, but in both I found myself drawn into the complex web of human emotion being explored, and I came away with a new appreciation of how different experiences of our world can be.
Joe Heap’s debut novel, The Rules of Seeing’, hits a similarly spectacular note for inviting readers to literally see the world with fresh eyes.
“Nova is 32 years old and she is about to see the world for the very first time.”
Nova is an interpreter for the Metropolitan police. She has been blind since birth, and has learned to navigate the world as comfortably and independently as possible. At the novel’s opening, she has been offered an operation that could allow her to see for the first time. As we soon discover, though, surgery is just the beginning: learning to see is far more complicated than anyone could have warned her.
While she’s recovering in hospital, Nova meets a woman who has been admitted after a serious blow to the head. A successful architect, Kate is currently experiencing doubts about her husband – he’s been very secretive, and has become easily agitated by many of the things she does. That’s how she ended up in hospital – she discovered a white square of folded paper in the kitchen, and Tony was determined to get it back from her.
The two women become closer, trying to help one another readjust to their new perspectives, and it’s not long before their friendship becomes something more. How easy will it be, though, to move on from the ghosts of their previous lives?
The Rules of Seeing really has changed me. This is the work of fiction I’ve read that has explored someone’s journey with and after ‘physical’ blindness, and it’s made me reconsider what I’ve taken for granted before. The way that learning to see – adjusting to colours, depths, textures, movement – was described as understanding a new language was so profound to me. Nova’s self-created ‘Rules of Seeing’ were woven into the narrative, and they brought home how intricate and complex ‘seeing’ really is. For the majority of us, we go through that learning period in our earliest years, so we remember little of the effort it takes. Nova, though, has to essentially set aside the instincts she has developed without sight in order to make sense of the world with it.
‘Rule of Seeing No. 399: Learning to see is often a thankless task. Then, sometimes, the world opens up, and you understand something you could never have understood before, like the way a bird takes off from the group and flies through the air. The world will never look the same again.’
Nova’s personality is beautifully eccentric and optimistic; I was immediately drawn to her, and moved by her conflicted feelings towards the operation that promised to improve her sight. Her confusion was almost universal, while also being unique to her situation: the choice between keeping a life you’re comfortable and familiar with and the opportunity to experience something completely new. It was treated so delicately, with such nuance, showing how her family, friends, and colleagues tried to offer advice and support.
Kate’s story was equally compelling, as she was learning to see in a completely different way. While doubts had been creeping up on her before, meeting Nova encouraged her to look at her life, her marriage, and her career properly. It’s not long before she’s ready to seek changes to make herself happy. I loved her focus and ambition: seeing how driven she was made her growing insecurities feel all the more significant.
The gradual intertwining of Nova and Kate’s stories was magnificent to behold. I’m a sucker for a good romance, especially when it evolves naturally, rather than being a mere plot development. Becoming each other’s guide in the unfamiliar landscapes being traversed, they naturally grew together into a partnership as close to perfect as anyone could wish for. Nova and Kate are so kind, compassionate, and tender with each other, yet Heap is unafraid to show how easily reliance can become toxic.
Where Nova’s narrative is more contemplative, gently moving through her new experiences, elements of Kate’s plot strand are often what propels the action forwards (and into increasingly dark situations).
There were a couple of tense, relatively graphic moments that had me gripped and holding my breath. Let’s just say, the rabbit on the cover is not random. This is where Heap takes The Rules of Seeing into ‘thriller’ territory and this contrast with the central, hopeful atmosphere of the book is masterfully done. This is a true testament to Heap’s skill in storytelling.
This novel really does have everything. It’s a page-turning thriller, a heart-warming tale of friendship and love, as well as an enlightening story of ‘becoming’, in many senses of that concept. Heap’s use of language is so vivid, and he crafts his character’s nuances incredibly well. The Rules of Seeing will stay with me for a long time (while I relentlessly recommend it to anyone and everyone who will listen). With such a compelling and original debut, I excitedly await news of what Joe Heap writes next!
*The Rules of Seeing, written by Joe Heap, is published by HarperCollins UK
* Thanks to Felicity Denham for the review copy in exchange for an honest review during this blog tour