By Jay S. Hipkins
Astrolabe is the story of a young man who came from a scholarly family. His mother and father were two of the most noted people in early twelfth-century Paris. This novel delves into his troubled youth and is a completely fictional account of a character we know very little about.
Anyone who has studied the middle ages is familiar with the story of Abelard and Heloise. For a couple that lived over nine hundred years ago, we know a surprising amount of information about this famous couple. However, what ever happened to Astrolabe, the child of their love – the cause of their “misfortunes?” The answer is – no one really knows.
Other than a few scant references to him, he disappeared completely in the annals of history. He may or may not have joined a religious order, according to one later account of him, but other than that, we know absolutely nothing about the mysterious child of Abelard and Heloise.
Before you now is his story as I have imagined it. The action within this novel takes place in and around Paris, France sometime in the mid-1130’s.
“It matters nothing to me whether or not you remember my name…”
Astrolabe had grown up in the shadow of his parents. Parents whom he could not remember and whom he only communicated with via letters – but everyone else had heard of them, for their love had been a scandal. They were sinners, noble ones, but sinners all the same.
Determined to find a purpose to his life, Astrolabe must decide what kind of man he wants to become. Does he want to become like his friend, Robert de Langton, who spends his nights in a house of ill repute, indulging in the pleasures of the flesh? Or perhaps he could become like his cousin, Vassadelle, who gave alms to the poor every Sunday but refused to see the poverty around her on any other day of the week.
But Astrolabe is neither his friend nor his cousin. As both Robert and Vassadelle lose their way, Astrolabe finds his in the most unexpected of places…
Astrolabe by Jay S. Hipkins is the story of one young man’s quest to find a place for himself in a world that is as beautifully confusing, as it is enlightening.
I found the portrayal of Astrolabe endlessly fascinating. Although Astrolabe often mocks the scholars, he is a man of understanding and a seeker of knowledge. He pursues answers the way Aristotle did – he at first observes and then applies abstract reasoning to back up his conclusion. Astrolabe sees every detail in the world that surrounds him, and unlike others of his class he sympathises with the poverty-stricken poor. However, he has no real understanding of them, and because of this, he sometimes blunders most embarrassingly as he tries to bring them comfort and charity. Nevertheless, his mistakes do not deter him from seeking what his soul demands of him. He cannot unsee what he has seen, and yet, he understands his limitations — Astrolabe is under no illusion that he can end poverty, but if he can help, even in the smallest of ways, he will do his very best. His empathetic nature is a direct contrast to his aristocratic upbringing and at times, the two conflict most dreadfully. However, Astrolabe is also no saint, especially at the beginning of this book, and his actions, or inactions when a response was required, demonstrates his youthful desire to be accepted by his peers. Hipkins has therefore presented his readers with a deeply flawed character, but yet a strangely virtuous one. By doing so, Hipkins reminds his readers there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to assessing one’s virtue because different behaviours are honourable in different situations. As one learns and grows, the things that one might have found acceptable are no longer tolerable, and this is undoubtedly true in Astrolabe’s case. I thought Astrolabe’s depiction was fabulous and incredibly real in the telling.
Philosophical debate has a significant role to play in this story, and many of the conversations, if not all, turn into a discussion about ethics, and religion. At times, this did slow the story down a little, but the conversations are fascinating, and they do have their roles to play in the development and growth of Astrolabe’s character. Likewise, they showed the deeply contrasting attitudes of the wealthy and their ideas of what it meant to be poor. Vassadelle looks upon the poor with disgust, and she cannot understand why Astrolabe finds them so incredibly fascinating. She fails to see them as fellow human beings. Their poverty is repugnant to her, and there is nothing that anyone could say that would change her mind. Likewise, Robert enjoys the position of power that his wealth means he has, and he delights in terrorising those whom he considers below him in all things. What Astrolabe sees and his friends do not, is there are no fundamental differences between the haves and the have-nots – they are the two faces of the same coin, which is why he feels so moved to help in any way he can. And it is also why, despite ample opportunities, he remains utterly incorruptible.
There are some disconcerting scenes in this book, but there are also lighter moments that youth, and all its opportunities for those with money, provided. One could say that this is a novel of both light and darkness. We are introduced to a sleazy house of pleasure and all of the corruption that such a place encourages, but Hipkins takes great pains in showing that even in such a place, goodness, innocence and beauty can still be found.
I thought this book was an utterly enthralling read, and the narrative was eloquently alluring. There are also some fabulous plot twists as well that help to keep the reader engaged. Astrolabe by Jay S. Hipkins is certainly a novel that deserves to be read again and again.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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Jay S. Hipkins
Jay (1968-2018) was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. He published his first collection of stories, An Ocean of Stories: Tales & Sketches, in 2014.
He published his first novel, Astrolabe, in 2018.