Tuesday 15 April 2014

The Luminaries (not an A to Z post)

'The Luminaries' by Eleanor Catton. Wow and more wow. And so not what I expected. I only just read 'The Rehearsal' about six months ago and it is a very avant garde novel. When I read that her second, 'The Luminaries', had first been shortlisted and then won the Booker I added myself to the queue of people waiting to borrow it from the library. I had not read anything about the story so I had no preconceptions about it. It has everything really; it has history, it has intrigue, it has murder and disappearances, it has stolen gold and it has young love. And what a wonderful cast of characters, and all of them important to the plot, not just there to fill the background. And moral ambiguity, not that you can't tell the goodies from the baddies, just that everyone is really human, with both strengths and weaknesses. The only thing I didn't really get were the lunar and astrological references, I was not sure quite what relevance they had, to the story or anything.
Hokitika 1870
Set in the (presumably) (but apparently notfictional town of Hokitika in New Zealand during the latter half of the nineteenth century we are introduced to a group of twelve men who are meeting to discuss the death of one local man and the disappearance of another. A new arrival in the form of Walter Moody happens upon their gathering and by a circuitous route ends up being told the entire story. This takes up the first 300 pages or so. I confess I was a bit daunted by the size of the book and dawdled through this first part, then realising that it had to go back to the library I have read the last 500 pages in just a few days (and please excuse the rushed review as it is now overdue). I think this was a good thing because it is the kind of book that benefits from full immersion; it is full of atmosphere and historical detail. It wasn't until I wrote out this first quote that I realised how apposite it is, because it involves a simile that conjures up an image that we might not be familiar with, but which the characters in the book would know very well:

"The report from the small gun was hollow, even unremarkable - like the cracking of a topsail far above a deck. It seemed an echo of itself, as if the real shot had fired somewhere much further away." (p.160)

The second quote similarly creates an image (one that I very much sympathise with because I feel the same) but that is again something not familiar in everyday modern life:

" 'I've been busy,' said Balfour, eyeing the candle a second time - for ever since he was a boy he had not been able to sit before a candle without wanting to touch it, to sweep his index finger through the flame until it blackened, to mould the soft edges where the wax was warm, to dip his fingertip into the pool of molten he sat and then withdraw it, swiftly, so that the tallow formed a yellow cap over the pad of his finger which blanched and constricted as it cooled." (p.196)

What is really wonderful about the book though is the complexity of the plot. It is simply a darn good story, well written and well put together. It twists and turns and, like the men in the 'fellowship', we get dribs and drabs of information, some by deliberate and often furtive enquiries, but some come across by accident in the course of life in a small and intimate community. Everybody knows each other and each other's business. The social and political attitudes of the time are very vividly represented. The feeling of being far from home is a theme for many characters and much of the language refers to going back when a suitable fortune has been made. The influence of the gold is everywhere, in the forefront of everyone's interactions. In Anna, Lydia and Margaret we have three women who are victims of the harsh life that exists in this outpost of the empire, all of whom have reacted in different ways to the restrictions of their gender. I was concerned that the 'whore' thing might be a bit clich├ęd, but Anna is a very real character and all the men's opinions and reactions to her are cogent with their respective personalities. It just occurred to me that it was interesting to so enjoy a book that was much more focussed on male characters because so many books that I read are by and about women.

Final quote comes from Moody, and I kind of liked it because it sums up the process of reading the book. Having followed through several months the book then cycles around on itself to the backstory of the main players, though one vital event was left unexplained, but I don't begrudge it.

" 'All that is impertinent is not only immaterial; it is, in many cases, deliberately misleading. Gentlemen,' (though this collective address sat oddly, considering the mixed company in the room) 'I contend that there are no whole truths, there are only pertinent truths - and pertinence, you must agree, it always a matter of perspective. I do not believe that any one of you had perjured himself in any way tonight, but your perspectives are very many, and you will forgive me if I do not take your tale for something whole." (p.282)

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