Diamond Eyes by A A Bell: a commentary

Diamond Eyes

a commentary by Nalini Haynes

Mira Chambers, a young woman, has been institutionalised for the past ten years ever since authorities tackled her in a tree causing her to fall and breaking just about every bone in her body.

This inauspicious beginning to her internment coupled with her strange eyesight leads to consecutive misdiagnoses, while abusive tactics by health workers alienates Mira further, creating a vicious downward spiral. Freddie Leopard, an insane inmate, sews Mira’s eyes shut after Mira asks him to cut her eyes out. Ben arrives at Serenity, the secure care facility that is the site of Mira’s latest internment.

Ben tries a fresh approach: kindness and listening to Mira. Ben’s  wrongful conviction and imprisonment for six years gives him insight and empathy for Mira. Two doctors developing a new form of polygraph with military funding discover that Mira may have been misdiagnosed, revealing that Mira may herself have military potential, due to her Diamond Eyes.

Diamond Eyes is a riveting read although sometimes it’s frighteningly realistic. The science fiction element is Mira’s ability to see through time and Freddie’s ability to hear through time, while the realism comes from Bell’s experience working in a mental health facility and living in a family with experience of vision loss.

Mira’s experience of living in mental health care facilities is appalling, with staff using violent means including tasers and drugs to subdue her against her will, however Mira’s experiences are not as bad as some mental health facilities.

The Royal Derwent Hospital in New Norfolk, Tasmania, used to house criminally insane people alongside people with disabilities whose families did not want them or could not cope with their care. I have talked with staff at the Royal Derwent who passionately hated the inmates, vilifying them for misbehaviour when imprisoned in their beds 24/7 with absolutely nothing – not even television or occupational therapy – to occupy their days. I’ve heard some appalling stories* emphasising that the staff’s treatment of Mira is believable.

*I believe that conditions in the Royal Derwent have improved over the past 20 years

Without a doubt the most irritating, frustrating dialogue in Diamond Eyes is the realistic depiction of health specialists talking to Mira; this dialogue is patronising and repetitive whilst potentially creating a wall between the health specialist and the client (Mira) was well as the reader.

This dialogue is so realistic that Ms Bell could easily have recorded and transcribed conversations, merely changing the details, except that the real conversations would have been WORSE.  Bell gives a little insight to readers who have not experienced disadvantage and have not had to deal with disability or medical professionals in this kind of relationship.

Mira’s affliction/ability is science fiction in origin, however Bell incorporates reality of eye conditions, diagnosis and consequences into Diamond Eyes. There are eye conditions that are not treatable even with current medical advances, particularly disadvantaging people who are misdiagnosed or even treated as suspect (falsely claiming disability). Bell’s descriptions of equipment used to diagnose eye conditions is limited to the futuristic polygraph (lie detector) but is obviously based on existing ophthalmological (eye doctor) equipment.

Many consequences of a disabling eye condition are mentioned through the course of Diamond Eyes. Migraines as a consequence for blurry vision causing eyestrain are common; headaches are something I experience on a daily basis due to eyestrain, worsening with severe eyestrain due to lack of disability access. Misunderstandings are common when a visually oriented person and vision impaired person try to communicate.

There are the visual words used, something Mira notes when she is a point of view person in Diamond Eyes. There are miscues and misunderstandings because the person with good eyesight assumes too much, as is normal in a situation when someone assumes their privileged point of view as the dominant – mandatory – perspective.

I’d like to discuss developments later in the book but in the interests of not putting in spoilers, I’ll save those issues for discussion in the review of Hindsight, the next book in this trilogy. The character development is good, even surprising at a key juncture, but no magical wand-waving removes the consequences of earlier interactions. The plot is well-paced, building to a satisfying climax. The entire trilogy is available now so waiting for the next instalment is not an issue.

In summary, Diamond Eyes is a great psychological thriller with well-developed science fiction features. The exploration of disability issues, including mental health care and vision impairment, are insightful. The only other book that ranks as high with regards to disability issues is Bareback by Kit Whitfield, but Bareback only focuses on disability generally, never touching on vision impairment. Diamond Eyes is a must read, recognised for its depth and discussion of disability issues by the Australian science fiction community.

Norma K Hemming Award for Diamond Eyes

A.A. Bell won the Norma K Hemming Award for Diamond Eyes. The Norma K Hemming Award is for excellence in the exploration of race, gender, sexuality, class and disability given by the Australian Science Fiction Foundation. The Norma K Hemming website says:

Ms Bell from the Lockyer Valley says it has taken 10 years to write Diamond Eyes, which is based on a young blind woman who can see back in history. She says the story was inspired by her work at a mental health facility and her family’s own experience with vision loss.

“It’s set in and around south-east Queensland and Moreton Bay on a fictional island but based on a number of real islands in Moreton Bay, as well as the health sanctuary where I worked for 10 years,” she said.

4 Comments

  1. In glad to hear your endorsement of this one. It’s been on my TBR shelf for a while. I thought I’d heard some bad things about the depiction of disability in it, but I’m glad you think it’s realistic. Bumping it up a bit in my reading next list.

  2. Whenever you get down and dirty with a topical issue, controversy follows. The range of characters in this story, particularly the range of people living in Serenity (the mental health care facility) is something to particularly note: while one character in particular is… nasty? unstable? he’s far from the only disabled character. It’s a lot like saying ‘you can’t have a villain who is a lesbian because it’s been done to death’: Trudi Canavan pulled that one off by having a protagonist AND villain who were both lesbians. The message there as in Diamond Eyes is clear: people are diverse. What really sold me on Diamond Eyes was the realism, although at this point in time – while I’m being discriminated against at university – some parts/issues were difficult to read; a bit too close to home.

    I’m glad you’ve bumped it up your TBR pile, I think it’s well worthwhile. I also highly, highly recommend Bareback by Kit Whitfield: it’s fantasy and a very different story although still dealing with disability as a theme (and doing so MASTERFULLY).

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