‘Her husband has a temper, but better that than someone who doesn’t give a damn, right?’
Joe heap’s compelling debut novel, The Rules of Seeing, is about two women who meet by chance and how that ‘sliding doors’ moment impacts dramatically on their lives.
Jillian Safinova – Nova to everyone – has been blind since birth. A talented linguist, employed by Scotland yard as an interpreter, she’s sparky and astute. Nova can tell when someone is lying, just from the sound of her voice.
Kate Tomassi is a successful architect, married to Tony, a policeman and she’s no push-over. When she orders brushed steel for the apartment she’s renovating and the part turns out to be smooth, the foreman tells her that sometimes when there’s a difference between what’s ordered and what arrives, you have to compromise: ‘Improvise? I’m an architect, not Charlie Parker,’ snorts Kate.
Her parents are Italian, who co-opted a 1950s brand of Anglo conservatism. They’re straight and nice, up to a point. Kate enjoys her job and her marriage well enough although there is some discord between her and Tony over when they will start a family. Kate ends up in hospital after a fall at home – or was she pushed?
Nova has an operation to restore her sight and needs rehab afterwards, Kate requires check-ups following her accident and the two women first meet in a doctor’s waiting-room. Both are dealing with different kinds of fear.
For Nova, the operation has meant huge and disturbing change – she almost has to learn to live all over again, from reading, to recognising colours and to navigating shapes and contours of rooms and landscapes. Rule Of Seeing No 2: Objects look smaller as their distance increases. Is that a street lamp or the moon? And if she can’t read yet, how to tell the difference between a packet of butter and a packet of cream cheese?
While the operation has given her the gift of sight, Nova’s gone from a confident and strong person who managed her blindness well for 32 years, to feeling vulnerable, confused and timid. Since the fall, Kate is having panic attacks and her relationship with Tony is beginning to unravel. At times she can barely bring herself to leave their apartment.
Kate and Nova strike up a friendship, one of strong mutual support and a shared sense of humour. But there’s also a spark of attraction there that Nova, who has always lived as a gay woman understands immediately. Kate however, is freaked out by it.
Nova encourages Kate out of her apartment, Kate teaches Nova about being sighted. Without ruining the plot which curves around their friendship and Kate’s disintegrating marriage, some bad things happen, a darkness descends and The Rules of Seeing becomes edgier, and scary. But in a good way (if you like thrillers).
The story comes alive through the personalities of the two women. At first, they’re like quick, rough sketches. As the book progresses, they turn into deftly detailed portraits of people whose fate you care about deeply.
Joe Heap, an exciting new voice in fiction, writes fluently, with heart and humour. The Rules of Seeing is a one-off – both a highly original, thought-provoking novel and a quirky, endearing love story. Not to mention the cliff-hanger ending that had me squirming on the sofa, giving the cat a bumpy ride.
I notice in the biography at the outset of the book that along with his family, Joe lives with an ‘aggrieved’ cat. Now, so do I.
About the Author
Joe Heap was born in 1986 to a biology teacher and a drama teacher, and grew up in a house that was 70% books, 25% bags of unmarked homework, 18% underpants drying on radiators, and 3% scattered Lego bricks.
He is very bad at maths.
In 2004 Joe won the Foyle Young Poet award, and his poetry has been published in several periodicals. He studied for a BA in English Literature at Stirling University and a Masters in Creative Writing at Glasgow University, during which time he ate a deep-fried Mars Bar. It was okay.
Joe is now a full-time writer, but previously worked as an editor of books for kids and young adults. He has also been a subtitler for BBC News, a face painter at a safari park and a removal man for a dental convention. Before smartphones were invented, he manned a text service where people could ‘ask any question’, but he has since forgotten most of the answers.
He lives in London with his long-suffering girlfriend, short-suffering son, and much-aggrieved tabby cat.