The author of The Journal of Mrs. Pepys (1999) again offers a vividly wrought fictional memoir by the unsung amanuensis of a real-life figure.
François Burnens goes to work in the summer of 1785 for M. François Huber, a gentleman living outside Geneva. Monsieur, as Burnens refers to him, has been blind since he was 19; he hires François to assist him in his study of bees, as well as such mundane tasks as shaving. Spanning ten years, Burnens’s leisurely first-person narrative reveals its author as an intelligent, observant youth and his employer as a warmhearted, reflective man who has forged the agony of affliction into hard-won serenity. We see through Burnens’s eyes that the Hubers’ profoundly loving marriage has its frustrations for the blind man’s wife; occasional lapses when the manservant forgets himself and refers to Madame as Marie-Aimée reveal an increasingly insistent attraction between them. There’s no melodrama, however, only the delicately described relations of decent people striving for fulfillment within the bounds of duty and honor. The Hubers’ other servants and their son Pierre are as fully imagined as the three principals, and the two men’s work with bees is as fascinating as the household interactions. George subtly uses their scientific efforts to show Monsieur imparting life lessons about patience and meticulousness to the young manservant, promoted to secretary after his careful reflections prove as invaluable as his eyes. “God bless your vision, Burnens,” Monsieur exclaims when they make a crucial discovery about how the queen bee mates. “Mine is only the sight, sir,” he replies, “yours is the vision.” Yet over the years Burnens’s sentiments of affection and obligation are challenged by a growing desire to find work, a wife, and a home of his own. The time comes for him to leave, with Monsieur’s gracious yet sorrowful blessing. It’s a mark of how sensitively George has shaped her tale that this inevitable denouement leaves us both saddened and exultant.
Thoughtful, beautifully written, and wonderfully tender toward its appealing characters: another impressive achievement for George.