Eleanor Catton will be among the recipients of Canada’s highest literary honour for her historical suspense novel The Luminaries. The 28-year-old author has been making headlines around the world, but not just for her GG win. Six weeks ago, Catton won the much-coveted Man Booker Prize. She was the youngest winner for the longest novel (832 pages) in its history.
Catton was born in London, Ontario, where she lived until she was six
while her father completed his PhD at the University of Western
Ontario, but she grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand. Writing fiction
is a lifelong endeavour, and the world is anxious to know how Catton
managed to become such an exemplary writer at such a young age. She has
said on repeated occasions that she has been writing for as long as she
can remember and credits her mother, a librarian, for always keeping her
with a fresh supply of books. Four years ago, Catton penned her debut
novel The Rehearsal,
which was also her Master’s thesis. A sex scandal at a high school
formed the basis of the story, which received a number of awards,
including the Amazon.ca First Novel Award.
A departure from her previous novel, The Luminaries takes
place in Hokitika, a gold-rush town on the west coast of New Zealand’s
south island in the 1860s. On a dark and stormy January evening, Walter
Moody steps off a shipwreck and walks into the first Hokitika hotel he
finds. He has come, like other European prospectors and Chinese
labourers, to start afresh and seek his fortune in the New Zealand
goldfields. Moody has had a deeply unsettling experience aboard the
barque Godspeed, and is still shaken when he enters the hotel.
There, he finds himself in the midst of 12 men who are holding an
informal meeting about a series of unexplained events that involve a
drugged prostitute found unconscious in the street, a wealthy young man
who has disappeared and a fortune in gold found in the home of a hermit
who has died under suspicious circumstances.
The reader must comb through multiple layers of speculation,
contradiction and fact to uncover the reasons for these three events and
the connection between them. In the course of this highly complex
novel, the reader meets 20 characters that include a whoremonger, a
chaplain, a greenstone hunter (the sole Maori character), an opium
addict, a fortune-teller, a jailer, a politician and a former convict.
Every character is privy to a piece of information that no one else
knows. Gold is concealed in the seams of gowns, identities are stolen
and fortunes are lost. Then, there is the astrology-based structure with
charts at the start of each of the book’s sections. Catton has assigned
personality traits that are stereotypical of one zodiac to each of the
12 men, while 7 other characters are said to have planetary influences.
The Luminaries reads like a Victorian novel, reminiscent of
Dickens or Collins. The writing is beautiful, compelling and detailed,
with so much keen insight that it is hard to imagine that the author is
under the age of 30. There are multiple narrative threads, but the story
under Catton’s deft hand never becomes unwieldy. At times, however, the
many details are hard to keep straight. Fortunately each chapter starts
with an epigraph with the names of characters who are to appear, making
it easier to go back and check details. This is not a book to read on
your commute to work. Instead, it is best enjoyed when you can read for
hours at a time.
The narrative threads may not always be tied up perfectly, but there
are plenty of wonderfully written distractions to make you quickly
forget. Towards the end of the book, the epigraphs may tell too much of
the story, but the author nevertheless serves up a highly satisfying
ending. The Luminaries is a booklover`s novel.
Eleanor Catton’s abilities as a writer are astounding. If this is what
she produces at age 28 then I look forward to what she will write at
50, when most writers are just hitting their stride. She is a shooting
star in the literary firmament and a more than worthy recipient of the
Governor General’s Award for fiction.
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Detropia by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
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The Fruit Hunters by Yung Chang
This has been cross-posted at Rover Arts.