Slight mis-quote, but The Bard must be used to it. What to say about The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton? Another very long book, definitely, but what a read! There were two things that struck me right where it matters, one may apply to lots of people and the other to only a few.
As a Piscean myself, I completely understand the radical effect that the moon and stars have on my moods and my physical well-being or not; whether they also effect my whole life I am less sure – but almost any Piscean will know what I mean. The other more serendipitous thing about this book is that earlier in the year (as many of my followers will know) I spent three weeks in New Zealand, two of them on the Canterbury Plain, so to read about those places when newly visited by Europeans and Chinese in the goldrush of the 1860s was pure joy. I didn’t even know there had been a goldrush! Excuse my complete ignorance.
So the book: the luminaries of the title both describes the stars and also the characters in this complex and interesting, even delightful narrative. The novel is told from many different angles each focussing on the events of a single day and the weeks leading to that day: 14th January 1866.
This is Eleanor Catton’s second novel and it is astonishingly accomplished. I do not intend any disrespect to her when I say that her mastery of plot line, characterisation and suspense it quite breath-taking. While 800 pages in a lot of space to unfold a story, every single page is worth taking care with, each chapter is headed with an astrological position, followed by an italicized resume, read all of it! It is rather Victorian in its way, which is entirely appropriate, as is the configuration of the astrological chart cleverly illustrated by Barbara Hilliam. Ignore them and you miss half the delight and charm.
I also like the fact that the Cantonese and the Maori passages are not translated, it is not entirely clear each time what has been said, but then this is also true of the misunderstandings, germane to the plot, that arise on both sides. There is a large cast made up of Europeans, two Chinese and a Maori – this man’s name is Te Rau Tauwhare – it makes no difference but just to be helpful you should know that this is pronounced Teroo Towfaray. At the beginning of the book there is a character chart with addresses…look at that too. In fact, don’t skip anything.
I love the way EC delineates character, here is a taste, this is how she describes one of the Chinese diggers, who have a very lowly position in this speculators world of hard toil, good luck and bad judgement:
Quee Long was a barrel-chested man of capable proportions and a practical strength. His eyes were rounded in their inner corners, but came to a point at his cheeks; the shape of his face was almost square. When he smiled, he revealed a very incomplete set of teeth: he had lost two incisors, as well as his foremost molars in his lower jaw. The gaps in his smile tended to put one in mind of a child whose milk teeth were falling away – a comparison that Quee Long might well have made himself, for he had a critical eye, a quick wit, and a flair for caustic deprecation, most especially when that deprecation was self-imposed.
This is her description of Te Rau Tauwhare:
Te Rau Tauwhare was not quite thirty years of age. He was handsomely muscular; and carried himself with assurance and the tightly wound energy of youth; though not openly prideful, he never showed that he was impressed or intimidated by any other man. He possessed a deeply private arrogance, a bedrock of self-certainty that needed neither proof nor explication – for although he had a warrior’s reputation, and an honourable standing within his tribe, his self-conception had not been shaped by his achievements. He simply knew that his beauty and his strength were without compare; he simply knew that he was better than most men.
Aren’t you simply dying to read this? I loved this book and dearly want to see it on the short list. I do love a writer who understands the use of the semi-colon.
So my current short list would include: The Luminaries Eleanor Catton; The Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw; Harvest by Jim Crace; A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki; either The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris or Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson which leaves one place for the books that have not yet been published, but at a guess it probably would include The Lowlands by Jhumpa Lahiri. What this space!