A young man on the verge of university is blinded in a freak accident.
Henry Green’s later books Loving, Living, and Party Going were referenced quite a bit in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, but I chose to start with Blindness because it was listed in the infamous 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. It’s a slim volume, and I breezed through it, though Green’s marvelous turns of phrase caused me to pause and relish.
Green opens the book with John’s diary, a record of his thoughts and feelings while in his final year at public school. He plans to go to Oxford, and is devouring great literature while pursuing his own writing. He’s alternately overjoyed by his ability to write, and overwhelmed by his perceived inability to meet the high standards he’s set for himself–a conflict any writer can relate to. He’s passionately alive, so when we receive word in the form of one classmate written to another that he’s lost his sight, it feels like a tremendous blow. How, now, will John read?
The book then switches to the third person, internally focalized through various characters. We’re with John as he learns that he’s lost his eyes, and Green makes his depression and despair palpable. Green also gives us POV sections from John’s stepmother, and from Jean, the scarred, poor girl whom John fancies he might romance. While each of these characters was fascinating in her own right, I felt that the shifts disconnected me from the story. I was far more interested in what John thought about Mamma and Jean than in what they thought about him, and those sections felt more like short stories than integrated parts of the novel.
Blindness was written by Green in the early 1920s when he was a young man, and as such stands as a good companion piece to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.