I received this as a freebie at last year’s NatCon, and kept it to read because it was the second winner of the Norma K Hemming Award (“the Norma”). As an Australian award that seeks to recognise specfic literature that deals with gender, race, sexuality, class, and disability, it sounds like an award I would like to stay on top of. That said, I still haven’t managed to get hold of the first winner, Maria Quinn’s Gene Thieves… but I will, honest. Obviously, since the book won last year and I only read it last week, it didn’t zoom to the top of my TBR – but after the sequel, Hindsight, also won the Norma, I thought I ought to get on to it. Despite the fact that I had heard a number of less-than-positive comments about it.
First up, I’ll say that it’s readable. I know that sounds like very faint praise, but a few people had suggested that it wasn’t – readable, that is – and I disagree. The sentences make sense, the world building and general plot make sense, I wasn’t confused about who was who and doing what. So, there’s that.
Mira Chambers is in an institution, although for much of the book it wasn’t entirely clear why. Yes, she seems to be blind, but that doesn’t get you made a ward of the state. I figured out eventually that it’s because she’s an orphan… Anyway, back to the plot. Mira is nasty to the people who are meant to be looking after her, although as the novel opens she’s introduced to a new nurse, Ben, and there seems to be some hope that maybe he’ll be nicer and so will she. Their burgeoning friendship takes up a significant part of the novel. The plot also revolves around the revelation/investigation into the nature of Mira’s blindness (hint: she’s not really blind, in the can’t-see-anything sense… she just sees differently). Also, there’s a military conspiracy.
I didn’t like Mira much. Partly this is because she’s not very likeable for the first third or so, even when we get an insight into her reasoning and what she’s experienced in life; partly it’s because I didn’t feel like I ever got to understand her very well at all. And she wasn’t interestingly mysterious, either. For maybe the first half of the novel I couldn’t even figure out how old she was, and that bugged me because I couldn’t figure out whether the relationships around her – with nurses and fellow inmates – made sense or not.
I also didn’t like Ben much. At times too saccharine and at others too morose, he wasn’t consistent enough as a character for me to develop a rapport.
Most of the military characters were a bit silly, as were the science-types. The Matron was almost as inconsistent as Ben, when she could have been awesome because she is trying to change the system from the inside, and that takes guts and determination.
The best character, by far, was Freddy. Probably suffering (is that still the right way to describe it? I sought another word and came up blank… could be holiday brain) from multiple personalities, he is paradoxically quite a consistent character. I really enjoyed the way Bell wrote him, and the way she used him and his… gifts.
It was unclear to me for much of the story where this was taking place. That’s not a problem in itself: I am very happy for novels to take place in an Everywhere (like the Portland of the Troubletwisters stories). However, it became a problem when all of a sudden maybe halfway through, real Australian places were being named and described like it was meant to make sense to the reader. And it didn’t. It’s also not clear when these things are taking place. I initially thought this was a near-future novel, but it increasingly became clear that it was meant to be today. Which is fine, it just confused me.
I am conflicted. I must be honest and say that while I read the first 100 pages properly, I did skim the rest (about another 400 pages). That is, I read most of the dialogue, and I read some chapters completely, but there were significant sections where I let my eye scan down the page to see if anything interesting was going on. And much of the time, there wasn’t. However, I think that Bell has created an interesting gift/power/whatever for Mira (which I won’t spoil here), and I am actually tempted to read the sequel just to see where she goes with it.
Having read the novel, I profess myself surprised that it won the Norma. Does it deal with gender? Well, the main character is a woman… please don’t lets pretend that’s enough. Race? Ben isn’t white, but that’s not central in the slightest nor dealt with except for an ‘oh really?’. Sexuality? No. Class? No. Disability? … ah. Mira is blind – or everyone thinks she is. But she can see, just differently. Someone suggested to me that actually she’s not disabled; she has a superpower instead. I’m not entirely convinced by that argument, since she is definitely hampered in living her normal life, which suggests that even if it is a power it’s a problematic one at best. Another way this possibly covers disability is the fact that Mira is considered psychologically disturbed by a number of the other characters, and so is Freddy and many of the other people at the institution. But just because that’s how they’re regarded, and even if that’s what they are, doesn’t necessarily make the story a good exploration of those issues. Woman on the Edge of Time does a good job of exploring what it means to be regarded as mad, and how society deals with that. I do not think Diamond Eyes does – and maybe Bell wasn’t setting out to deal with it. I am therefore left wondering whether there was so little published in Australia in 2010 that dealt with the issues the Norma wants to recognise, that this was the best there was? It’s an ok novel, but I don’t think it’s groundbreaking in the issues it wants to address.