Blindspot

By JANE KAMENSKY and JILL LEPORE

Blindspot is a love story and a murder mystery suspended between the picaresque journal entries of Stewart Jameson and the letters of Frances Easton, and couched in the exigent art of seeing, really seeing, things as they are. Or not. For our minds play tricks with how and what we see, and our perceptions are riddled with blind spots, some real, some metaphorical — ignorance, say, or prejudice. Then there’s love, a blind spot often big enough to drive a car through.

The setting is Boston in 1764. Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore, historians teaching at Brandeis and Harvard, respectively, have given their collaborative novel an 18th-century cast, with its decided earthiness and a joy in clever wordplay that seeks after the spirit of the idiom (“crapulous claw-baw”) but avoids being smothered by it. Shades of Sterne, Fielding, and Richardson, though the authors are clearly too mischievous for only that; Jameson can as easily sound like the Captain in Tintin — “Judas Iscariot on a flaming red chariot!” he barks — as exhibit Ben Franklin’s inclination for puns or Yogi Berra’s for malapropisms.

Jameson has fetched up in Boston — and what a Boston, chromatic in its role as backdrop, even in its state of shabbiness after a number of hard years — on the run from a very big, bad debt back home in Edinburgh. He’s a decent fellow, as well as a bit of a rascal. He has knocked around some in his 30 years and has a hand for portraiture and a knack, as David Hume put it, for reading the internal fabric of his sitters. He also has a head full of steam for quips, digressions, and womanhood, which is why he is unnerved, once he has set up his humble atelier in Boston, to be passionately, ineluctably drawn to his apprentice, young Francis Weston, “more beautiful than I would wish him to be.”

Weston is an urchin fresh from the streets when Jameson takes him on because he shows a gift for painting. At the interview, Weston pulls a few samples of work from a grubby bag: “Out came half a dozen likenesses, such as Hogarth himself might have made. Sweet Jesus,” marvels Jameson. Outwardly, the penniless Jameson shows less awe; better to keep Weston without airs, and thus without wages.

Weston is also Easton, Frances “Fanny” Easton, outcast daughter of Edward Easton, a despicable man who will become chief justice of the colony’s highest court. Her knocking around has been at the hands of men — her lover, her father — and with a little help from her streak of rashness, she has gone from elegant townhouse to vile sweatshop in a single bound. Escaping, her breasts bound and hair shorn (though she can’t hide the long-lashed eyes or radiant blush), she answers Jameson’s advertisement.

Meanwhile, Boston is beginning to roil over taxes imposed by a parliament 3,000 miles away and the arrival of the royal grenadiers. (The history here is smart, stylish stuff, unsurprising if you know anything of Kamensky and Lepore’s books, or Lepore’s essays in The New Yorker or Common-place, the sophisticated, online journal they started that fuses academic and popular interests in American history.) The authors are obviously not unaware that they are fiddling with dates, but the soldiers play an important, quietly ominous role fanning the town’s sense of persecution. One of the pleasures of Blindspot is to watch as two meticulous historians take fiction’s liberty.

Liberty — it raises its proud head on every page: Jameson needs to be liberated from the (quite literally) bad debt and the prickings of his conscience concerning his apprentice; Easton, from her dissembling and the ghosts of her past; the working folk of Boston, from ruinous financial burdens.

And though many want to, there is no way of avoiding the elephant in liberty’s living room: slavery. The “great paradox” is played like a stringed instrument by the authors, a mournful music for sure, sometimes aching its way to a dirge. Attitudes toward slavery cut across class and ideological lines in Boston. Both the good and the bad are held up to the light. Foul deeds are done as a result of the ignominy, and the novel’s mystery hinges on it. A blind spot, then, for the book’s more unsavory, entitled, blackmailing, and supercilious characters, and a petard with which to hoist them. The murder mystery is a knotty one, involving a Boston graybeard — Samuel Bradstreet, a not-so-dim likeness of James Otis Jr., one of the real town’s deepest-running revolutionaries — and Ignatius Alexander, a friend of Jameson’s and a runaway slave. As a child, Alexander had been bought off a slave ship by an English nobleman, who had wagered a bet that, given a proper English education, he could be “civilized?indistinguishable, except for his skin, from an English gentleman.”

Alexander is the most complex, or at least the most inscrutable, character. His intellect has indeed become prodigious, and he is still a black man, with all the tribulations that entails once he’s been wrested from Guinea. He is also imperious, demanding, cryptic, and insulting — a strange friend — as he endeavors to solve the murder and secure a slave’s freedom. He orchestrates the story’s tension: there may be an obscure method to his madness, but he is like a ticking time bomb, in one world but combustively not of it. A slave once again, he may have seen and endured too much.

Under the circumstances, the love angle inches along in fits and starts. It is not giving away anything unexpected to tell that Weston’s guise drops, and she and Jameson get on with it, “it” being a good dose of merrily bawdy nookie, told with a color and carnality that would do another Fanny proud — with plenty of sweet, tender caring to boot. And if, perchance, they fornicate too much for some, it sure beats reading about economic theory.

Kamensky and Lepore have great fun in these pages, as will readers. Yet the book is more than a takeoff on 18th-century novels. It is a window into the everyday lives of its characters, commoners and grandees working to find their measure of deliverance and satisfaction, though as long as the institution of slavery blots the moral landscape, it will diminish — at the very least — all those it touches: a blind spot to some, and a terrible sore spot to others. This is a learned, engaged entertainment; you leave it quickened in a number of ways.