Here we are, then: my top 5 reading memories from the last decade. I knew how this countdown would end before I started compiling the list. The reading experiences I’m talking about here… more than anything, this is why I read.Continue reading
I’ve always felt fairly uneasy about the idea of being a ‘fan’ of any given author or series, because I’ve never really had (what seems to me) the typical fan’s relationship with the fiction I read or watch. Even when I was deep in collecting the volumes of long series like Discworld and Fighting Fantasy, I appreciated idiosyncracies and irregularities, the value of allowing writers to go where their imaginations took them. When I encountered other fans’ opinions, the common consensus seemed to be that the closer a given book was to the series/genre norm, the better; whereas the outliers were what most intrigued me.
Over the last 10-15 years, the fields of science fiction and fantasy have become much slicker when it comes to managing series; the trend has been towards valuing plot continuity, ‘world-building’ and high-concept combinations of ‘tropes’. Those, I’ve come to see, are not really my sort of thing, which is one reason I’ve drifted away from reading a lot of genre SF and fantasy in recent years. The work I find myself most drawn to is singular and often self-contained, and I still find myself liking aspects of work that many others seem not to (so, for example, I love The Luminaries for its four-dimensional living metaphors; and I don’t really care much either way about its plot, pastiche or astrology, which seem to get most of the attention). Ultimately, when it comes to matters such as world-building and series continuity, I am more in tune with the project of Viriconium, and I have to proceed from there.
Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.
When I love a book, I love it strongly: my favourite books have all, in their own ways, made the experience of living that bit more intense. One thing I’ve been trying to do through the blog this year is to come up with a way of encapsulating just what it is in books that makes me respond that way. This hasn’t been an easy task, because it needs to encompass some ostensibly very different types of books: I started off as a reader of fantasy and science fiction, but increasingly find myself drifting away from them; most of my favourites these days come from the ‘General Fiction’ shelves, yet I still tend to find straightforward realism lacking. I perceive a continuum across the books I love, and I’ve long had an idea in the back of my mind as to what unites them; but any description I tried – ‘postmodern’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘speculative fiction’ – would always seem to leave out something important.
The other day, however, the phrase ‘more than real’ popped into my head. What I mean by this is a sense that the conventional frame or form of a given book can’t contain the reality of what’s being written, so it has to push or twist. This feels right to me in terms of describing my favourite books. It covers some obviously fantastical material: Christopher Priest’s equivocal realities; Helen Oyeyemi’s collisions of story; Adam Roberts’s laboratories for testing sf. It takes in writers who take a non-realist approach to ‘the real world’: Eleanor Catton’s living sculptures; Jon McGregor’s unearthing of the strangeness in everyday experience; the mirage of coherence in Hawthorn & Child (‘more than real’ might be another way of saying ‘not real at all’). But there’s also room under that umbrella for writers like Ray Robinson and Evie Wyld, apparently realist writers who, to my mind, are shaping their work in subtler ways. One thing I’ve learned over time is that even the most mundane subject matter can be ‘more than real’.
It’s interesting to me that, though my taste in fiction hasn’t suddenly changed, just having that phrase ‘more than real’ has enabled me to think about these things in a different way. because I can see what I mean more clearly. I have a better idea of what I’m really looking for in fiction, so I should be better placed to find it and explore the experience. I’m excited to begin searching once again.
Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.
I have an on-off relationship with my ereader. I’m not particularly averse to electronic reading; it’s just that I rarely think to pick the ereader up when all the shelves of print books are so much more visible. I still prefer paper books at heart; indeed, very few of the ebooks I own are titles that I could also have bought as a print copy.
One of those few is Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, which I’ve been re-reading for my book group. I’d forgotten how much I liked it – the way it creeps up on you, gradually revealing that its form and narrator are not as they first appeared to be. I had put that forgetting down to not having read Shock until after it became a Big Name Book and somehow subconsciously (erroneously) assuming that meant it couldn’t be good, even though I remembered otherwise. But I also wonder if the experience of reading the book electronically didn’t have something to do with it.
“A book…is a doorway,” wrote Eleanor Catton recently. Her metaphor was more general, and made in a different context; but let’s run with the specifics of it for a while. When I open a print book, it is like stepping through a doorway, into the world of the book. Whatever distractions there may be from outside, it is ultimately just me and the book, and I have the whole text – its whole world – before me.
Catton goes on: “A screen is all surface. How many adults can sit at a computer terminal and read diligently and immersively, for hours?” It’s worth pointing out that, these days, such electronic reading is less likely to be done on a terminal than on something like a tablet or phone. But I think she does have a point here, because I find that, when I try to read on a multifunction device, I don’t have the same level of focus. After all, in those circumstances, reading is just one function among many.
I would distinguish, though, between multifunction devices and dedicated ereaders. With an ereader, it is still just me and the book, but the experience is different. If reading a print book is like opening a door, using an ereader to me is like peering through a hole. With a printed text, I can feel that I have the whole book in my hands. With the ereader, I have a single page (or page fragment) in front of me at any one time; I can’t flick so easily back and forth through the book; and an electronic page or percentage count give me a less intuitive sense of where I am in the book than holding a physical volume.
The effect of this is that, with ebooks, I find myself focusing much more on the isolated moment, less so on the context. It may be no coincidence that the only book read electronically that I’ve reviewed on this blog at any length is Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a novel that demands – and rewards – attention to and engagement with its language, which is something that reading in the moment can encourage. On the other hand, The Shock of the Fall, which takes you through different texts and styles, rewards an appreciation of its cumulative effect. I appreciated Filer’s novel well enough on the electronic page, but perhaps I would have experienced it better on the printed one.
I’ve now read a couple of the novels which were excerpted in last year’s Granta Best of Young British Novelists anthology; doing so has really brought home to me that a whole novel is not the same as a chapter or two. In a sense, of course, this is only self-evident; but it’s one thing to understand this in the abstract, and another to be able to compare a complete text with an extract which has been presented as a showcase of its author’s work.
Take Evie Wyld’s Granta piece ‘After the Hedland’, for example. I now know that this consists of the first three past-set chapters of All the Birds, Singing. So that means you immediately lose the alternating present/past structure which does so much; and you don’t necessarily spot that the chronology is reversed. That’s before we get on to the missing cues of tone, place and character. In other words, the context is gone; when you read ‘After the Hedland’, you can’t assume that you’re reading All the Birds, Singing.
Then there’s Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. The Granta anthology included chapter 7 of that novel; I knew at the time that I was inevitably missing quite a lot; but, even so, the whole book is again a very different work. For another Oyeyemi example, ‘My Daughter the Racist’ was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award in 2010; it works perfectly well as a standalone story, but it’s not going to prepare you for Mr Fox.
As I said above, this is obvious: a novel is a complete piece of work; you can’t judge from a snapshot. But the thing is that we do, perhaps more so with novels than any other art form; they demand so much time from us that we need some way of filtering out those that we don’t want to read. Rare is the reader who’ll do what Jenny Ackland did when reading The Luminaries, and plough on through 500 pages that that aren’t engaging them, in the hope that the book will suddenly be transformed. Rarer still, perhaps, is the reader who’ll find that it was worth doing.
But, in Ackland’s case, it was worth doing, and there’s the rub. I’ve seen several people around the book blogging world, whose opinion I respect, abandon The Luminaries relatively early on for one reason or another; I suspect that at least one of those people would ultimately appreciate what the book is doing, if they could carry on. I know I could have given up on The Rehearsal at one point, and I would have seriously missed out. What can we do to try to ensure that we don’t miss out, when we (probably) don’t want to have to finish every book that we start, and can’t guarantee that it will be worth carrying on ?
Well, consider what happens when a book suddenly clicks into place for us: it’s not the book that changes; it’s we who see more. So what I think we can do is be more open to seeing. We can take the view that a novel is not obliged to grab you from the first page (unless it is designed to!), but only to be true to itself. We can aim to be more attentive to what a book is doing, and less concerned with our own expectations. We can talk to each other about what worked or didn’t work for us in a book and why, and try to gauge our own likely reaction.
I think perhaps it ultimately comes back to treating literature as an encounter. It’s not an infallible strategy – nothing could be – but it may be a way of taking better chances.
This post is expanding on a few thoughts I’ve had recently, mostly prompted by reading Eleanor Catton’s article on literature and ‘elitism’ (first published in New Zealand’s Metro magazine in March 2013, then posted on Metro‘s website in December). The whole essayis fabulous, and you should read it. Catton argues that literature itself can’t be elitist, because a book can’t dictate who will read it, or how. But I’m more interested in her conception of literature as encounter, and book reviews as a means of ‘describing and critiquing a literary encounter’. This is such an inspiring idea to me, a different way of thinking about books: less in terms of ‘like’ or ‘dislike’, more as an exploration – how did I respond to this book, and why? It’s something I want to try to capture more on the blog.
Thinking about it more, I start to feel that experiencing a strong engagement with a book is more valuable than liking it per se. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not knocking enjoyment of a book, or suggesting that we should feel happy about disliking one; but it seems to me that – less often – we can have deeper reactions to a book which reach beyond that kind of consideration. I’m reminded of when I read Martin Martin’s on the Other Side by Mark Wernham a few years ago: the only time in the history of this blog that I’ve abandoned a book and still felt the need to write several hundred words explaining why. At the time, I was annoyed at the book; now I can see how infrequent it has been for me to be so affected by a book I didn’t like, and I feel that’s worth treasuring (it also makes me wonder whether I should give the novel another chance).
Another example. This week, I came across Jenny Ackland’s response to The Luminaries:
It is possible that a book you were on the verge of giving away…still made you want to finish it like no other book you’ve ever read?
I am exhausted and exhilarated, and a little bereft.
It’s a wonderful piece that captures just the sort of encounter Catton is talking about. I strongly suspect from this that the experience of reading The Luminaries is going to stay with Ackland for a long time, to put it mildly. But I would also wager that the negative parts of that experience will become integral to the memory of the whole (that’s what I mean by going beyond ‘like’ and ‘dislike’). To my mind, one reading experience this intense – even when there’s rough with the smooth – is worth a dozen moderately pleasant ones.
Another thought I’ve had recently is that Eleanor Catton’s current breakthrough reminds of China Miéville’s emergence at the time of Perdido Street Station (2000). Fittingly enough, there are striking coincidences (both writers won a major literary prize with their second novel, and at around the same age). But what I’m thinking about is that both came along as young writers with a very intense vision for their work, and an ability to articulate that vision powerfully. They could see their own way to do things, and Miéville opened up a space that changed the creative landscape around him (other writers, too, but it seems to me that Miéville’s voice rang loudest).
There are a couple of key differences: Miéville emerged from and worked firmly within the field of science fiction and fantasy, which Catton does not; she also doesn’t appear to have a creative ‘manifesto’ like the New Weird. It’s also, of course, too early to know how Catton’s career will develop; but it will be interesting to see how, and how far, her influence spreads. It wouldn’t surprise me to see more elaborately plotted historical mysteries, or novels built on formally organised structures, in the years ahead; but to focus on such trappings is to overlook the heart and soul of Catton’s books, which to me is the depth of unity that she achieves. My hope is that writers will take one key lesson from Catton’s work: do your own thing, and do it as fully and as well as you can.
Since I started planning this post, it has also occurred to me that The Luminaries would make an interesting point of comparison and contrast with Viriconium, particularly in terms of how (if?) they gradually erode story. But that’s a thought for another time!
Yesterday on Twitter, Max Cairnduff was asking other bloggers which two or three of their posts they would direct him to. I thought I’d share with you the ones I chose.
1. Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013). This post is both recent and pretty obvious; but I wouldn’t be true to myself as a reader and blogger if I didn’t highlight the contemporary writer whose work means more to mean than just about any other. I think this is one of my most passionate reviews; the essence of me as a reader is right there in this post.
2. How to approach a new genre. This post emerged from thinking about the question of where someone should start with a particular author or genre, and realising that the answer will probably be different for everyone. I was also thinking about how I had changed as a reader: exactly how had I come to appreciate books that I would once never have touched? This was my attempt to explore those issues.
3. Fantasy and Crime Fiction: The Cases of China Miéville and John Grant. For quite some time, this early post contained my longest response to a single book. But China Miéville’s The City and the City is that kind of book; it reveals an awful lot about how an individual reader reads (so does The Luminaries, actually). I think this post is still my best at engaging with other people’s thoughts on a book. I’m also pleased with how the comparison of the two books under discussion (John Grant’s The City in These Pages was the second) turned out.
Now I’ve done this, I’m curious about what other bloggers would choose; if you have a blog and are reading this, let me know.
I love end-of-year list time, because it’s a chance to reflect on the best moments. I read over 150 books this year, which I’m sure must be a record for me, and is certainly unusually high. There were plenty of highlights amongst all those books, but I have managed to sift them down to twelve, my usual number for these lists.
You can see my previous best-of-year lists here: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009. I’ve kept changing the format over the years (ranked or unranked; books from all years, or just the year in question); I’ve settled on including books from all years of publication (as long as I read them for the first time this year); but I think it’s more fun to rank them, so I’m also going to do that. And, taking a leaf from Scott Pack’s book, I’m going to list them in reverse order.
So, here (with links to my reviews) are my Top 12 Books of 2013:
12. Viola Di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (2011)
Translated from the Italian by Michael Reynolds (2012)
Of all the books I read in 2013, this may be the one that most thoroughly depicts the real world as a strange and treacherous landscape. This is a novel about the power of language to shape perception, as it depicts a young woman gradually discovering a new way to look at life (and, just possibly, finding love) when she meets a boy who teaches her Chinese.
11. Andrew Kaufman, Born Weird (2013)
This is the third Andrew Kaufman book that I’ve read, and he just gets better and better. Born Weird tells of five siblings who were given ‘blessings’ at birth by their grandmother, which she now plans to undo on her death-bed. Kaufman has a wonderfully light touch with the fantastic: there’s just enough whimsy to illuminate the family story, and there’s real bite when the novel gets serious.
10. Project Itoh, Harmony (2008)
Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith (2010)
A searching exploration of self-determination and authoritarianism in a future where remaining healthy is seen as the ultimate public good. One of the most intellectually engaging books I read all year.
9. Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (2012)
Chalk this one up as the book I liked that I wasn’t expecting to. A short but powerful character study of a mother becoming distanced from her son as he is swept away by social change and the great tide of story. This would have been my second choice for the Man Booker Prize. (My first choice? That’s further down/up the list.)
8. Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (2012)
A wonderfully fluid composite portrait of an African-American family making their way in the North across the twentieth century. Just recalling the range and vividness of this novel makes me want to read the book again.
7. Sam Thompson, Communion Town (2012)
Ten story-chapters that make the same fictional city seem like ten different places. Communion Town depicts the city as an environment crammed with stories, each vying for the chance to be told. It’s invigorating stuff to read.
6. Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)
With one of the strongest voices I’ve encountered all year, this is a nuanced account of a man’s pragmatic rise from childhood poverty to business success – with a keen sense that there are costs to be borne along the way. The second-person narration, which could so easily have been a gimmick, works beautifully.
5. Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (2013)
It has been really exciting over the last five years to see fine writers of my age-group emerge and establish names for themselves. Evie Wyld is one such writer; her debut was on my list of favourite books in 2009, and now here’s her second novel. Wyld remains a superb writer of place, in her depiction both of the English island where sheep farmer Jake Whyte now lives, and of the Australia that Jake fled. I also love how elegantly balanced this novel is, between the volatile past and the present stability that’s now under threat.
4. Alina Bronsky, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2010)
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr (2011)
Here’s the most memorable character of the year for me: the gloriously ghastly Rosa, who will do anything for her family if it suits her, and will do anything to them if it suits her better. This book is a joy – blackly hilarious, with a bittersweet sting.
3. Shaun Usher (ed.), Letters of Note (2013)
My non-fiction pick of the year. This is a lavish collection of facsimile letters, which is both beautiful to look at, and a window on very personal aspects of history.
2. Jess Richards, Cooking with Bones (2013)
Jess Richards’ work was my discovery of the year: Cooking with Bones is a magical novel that defies easy summary; but it includes a girl who doesn’t know who she wants to be, when all she can do is reflect back the desires of others; supernatural recipes; and one of the most richly textured fictional worlds I’ve come across in a long time. More fool me for not reading Richards’ debut, Snake Ropes, last year; but at least I have the wonderful promise of that book to come.
1. Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)
Once in a while, a book will come along that changes you as a reader, affects you so deeply that the experience becomes part of who you are. Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal was like that for me, which is why it topped my list of books read in 2009. With The Luminaries, it has all happened again. Several months after reading it, I am in awe at the novel’s range and richness; yet I feel that I’ve still glimpsed only a fraction of what Catton has achieved in the book. I was overjoyed at her Man Booker win, and can only hope that it will bring Catton’s work to the attention of as many people as possible. My wish for all readers is that they find books which mean as much to them as a work like The Luminaries means to me.
Now, what about you? What are your favourite books of the year? Also, if you’ve read any on my list, let me know what you thought.
This isn’t meant to be a guide to Christmas gift ideas as such (for that, let me direct you to Kim’s excellent series of posts over on Reading Matters). It’s more that I’ve read a few books lately which, it struck me, would make good Christmas presents; so I thought I’d put them together into a blog post, and add in some other titles that I reviewed earlier in the year.
Letters of Note, ed. Shaun Usher
This huge, lavishly illustrated collection of letters (based on the website of the same name) is an ideal gift for anyone interested in the personal side of history, or who likes letters and books as objects. Read more about it in my original review.
Wordsmiths & Warriors by David and Hilary Crystal
This is an illustrated travelogue of significant places in the history of the English language in Britain. I haven’t seen the finished book, as I read a proof version when I reviewed it; but I’ve no doubt that it will look beautiful.
Andrew Davidson’s grandfather Fred was a medical officer of the 1st battalion Cameronians during World War One. Although photography was banned on the front line, Fred and several other officers had cameras with them, and took photographs of their lives at war. Davidson uses these images to tell the story of the 1st Cameronians during the year that Fred was a serving officer. It’s a vivid and intimate account; there’s a real sense of the war gradually coalescing around the men as they march through France. Though Davidson refers to the photographs, he doesn’t caption them, which adds to the sense of this being an unfolding story for the men involved. Fred’s War gives a personal portrait of the conflict which is not quite like anything I’ve come across before.
The Girl from Station X by Elisa Segrave
Here’s another book based around personal wartime accounts, this time the diaries of Elisa Segrave’s mother Anne, who was stationed at Bletchley Park during World War Two. Again, it’s a fascinating glimpse into history, seeing Anne move from her privileged girlhood world into her wartime career; but this is Elisa’s story as much as Anne’s. Segrave describes how Anne’s diaries revealed to her a side of her mother that she had never known, and enabled her perhaps to understand Anne as she had not previously been able to. This double story is what particularly intrigues about The Girl from Station X.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Yes, I know: any excuse to enthuse about The Luminaries. But it is just the sort of big hardback novel that would make a great Christmas gift, especially for readers who may have been undecided about trying it out for themselves (it may take them well into the new year to read it, too).
If not The Luminaries, then Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity may also fit the bill (I have heard great things about both, but haven’t read them, so I can’t give a personal recommendation).
From three long books to a much shorter one. This is a crowd-funded collection of “timeless tales for children and grown-ups alike”, written by Tim Malnick and illustrated by Katie Green. The five stories are all about characters changing their outlook on life to find a way forward, from the painter imprisoned in a bare tower room, to a bat fascinated by daylight. Malnick’s prose has the rhythms of a classic fairytale, and Green’s illustrations are gorgeous. I may not be quite the intended audience for The Crystal Mirror, but I found the book absolutely charming.
Non-Fiction about Fiction
The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin
Subtitled “An A-Z of Literary Remedies”, this book has suggestions for reading to help alleviate a variety of ailments. Some are quite tongue-in-cheek (David Vann’s Caribou Island as a cure for enthusiasm with DIY; Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson to treat fear of doing your tax return); others more serious (Wuthering Heights to cure a desire to seek vengeance; Mrs Dalloway to tackle that Monday morning feeling). But the entries are always written with wit (I especially love the entries which spoof the style of the book being recommended; my favourite is the one for House of Leaves) and enthusiasm. After reading The Novel Cure, or even just dipping into it, you’ll almost certainly have some new books that you want to try. Now, what’s the cure for an exponentially increasing to-read pile..?
If I were to rank the books I’ve read during the lifetime of this blog (and there are over 500 of them) in order of enjoyment, Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal (2008) would be right at the top of the list. I bought it on a whim, knowing nothing about it; I was nearly put off by its mannered style; but then everything clicked into place, and I ended up with one of the greatest reading experiences of my life. Naturally, then, I’ve been eager ever since to read a second novel by Catton.
Four years after reading The Rehearsal, I have now had that opportunity. At first sight, The Luminaries appears a very different proposition from Catton’s debut: at 830 pages in hardback, it is more than twice the length of The Rehearsal. Where the first novel was set in a deliberately non-specific contemporary Western milieu, the new book is tied firmly to a time and place: the New Zealand gold rush town of Hokitika in 1865-6. Where The Rehearsal was fractured and stylised, The Luminaries has the appearance of being more conventional: the chronology leaps back at one point, and the novel’s twelve parts grow progressively shorter, but there’s nothing as obvious as The Rehearsal’s non-linear blurring of realities; and Catton’s prose remains within a largely convincing 19th-century idiom.
Things are not as simple as they seem. What made The Rehearsal stand out so much for me was how its unconventional form and style so completely embodied its central concern of performance, and reflected that back in myriad ways throughout the book. Catton does the same thing in The Luminaries, with a different set of concerns – but the extent of it only become apparent once you’ve finished.
Before I get further into that, some plot: we begin on 27 January 1866, when Walter Moody, a Scottish lawyer, walks into the smoking room of Hokitika’s Crown Hotel, disturbing twelve men in conference. Gradually gaining their trust, Moody hears their story: a couple of weeks earlier, a hermit named Crosbie Wells was found dead in his cottage, and a not inconsiderable fortune soon after. Around the same time, a young woman was found unconscious from opium in the road, apparently having tried to commit suicide. Through acquaintance with each other, each of the twelve men discovered that he was somehow connected to these events; so they decided to gather together in this room to discuss what may have happened, and what could be done.
As the novel progresses, more and more connections between the characters become apparent, revealing a complex and dastardly plot. It’s not for me to say much more about the twists and turns; but I will say that, if you want a page-turning murder mystery, you will find one in The Luminaries. This book is as tense and exciting a read as I have come across in a long time. But Catton does not stop there.
If you read any articles about The Luminaries, you’ll soon hear about its elaborate astrological underpinning. Twelve of Catton’s characters (the twelve men interrupted by Walter Moody) represent the signs of the zodiac; another seven represent planetary bodies (Moody is Mercury, for instance). Catton calculated the horoscope for Hokitika during the calendar year in which The Luminaries is set, and transposed the changing positions of each body into the relationships between her characters. Now, for many readers (including myself), I suspect this would not be a satisfactory end in itself: if you don’t know much about astrology, you won’t spot the connections; if you don’t believe in it, then you probably won’t care anyway. But what this astrological foundation does, to my mind, is set up some of the novel’s main subtexts.
One of these, as I’ve hinted above, is the idea of connection and relation. This is perhaps most obvious in the mystery itself: ‘there is no truth except truth in relation’ (p. 364), as Catton’s omniscient narrator puts it; and, indeed, no single character knows the full truth of Crosbie Wells’s death, or the plot going on around it. But we also see this theme manifest in the way that so many of the characters are trying to forge their own paths in life, to act on or against the world (gold prospectors in search of a life-transforming nugget, of course, but others as well), yet are scuppered by the actions of others. Catton’s characters are enmeshed in a web of interdependence that they can only begin to comprehend.
But the zodiac is not only a structure for connecting relationships in this novel; it’s also an artificial pattern imposed by humans on the night sky – and most of the characters have no truck with it. There are several ways in which Catton examines how we try to impose order on reality, and the implications and limitations of doing so. A murder mystery, for example, traditionally relies on a pattern being imposed upon seemingly unconnected facts. There are two major scenes in The Luminaries where this happens: when Moody sums up the accounts of the men in the Crown Hotel, and a later courtroom scene. Both of these sequences end with someone rushing in to announce an unexpected development. It’s a rather melodramatic device, but I see it as a literal interruption of disorder: the facts have been arranged to the characters’ satisfaction; everything seems to make sense – then in comes someone to reveal that it doesn’t. A classic fictional edifice is undermined with one of its own tools.
More pointedly than murder mysteries, there’s another example of a pattern placed over reality in the form of the gold mines themselves. These affect the world physically, silting up the Hokitika River; and Catton never allows us to forget that this is land which once belonged to the Maori. ‘You with your greenstone, us with our gold. It might just as well be the other way about,’ says one character to the Maori Te Rau Tauwhare. ‘No,’ replies Tauwhare, ‘it is not the same’ (p. 814) – but that is as much as we hear. These issues may not be explored in detail in The Luminaries, but Tauwhare’s voice still speaks eloquently, for all that it does not say.
I said earlier that each of the novel’s twelve parts is shorter than the last; more precisely, each part is half the length of the previous one (so Part I is nearly half the book, part XII just a few dozen words). This gives The Luminaries the shape of a golden spiral. It also acts like a spiral – or, to keep up the celestial theme, a black hole, stripping out information as it goes. Though the novel begins with the immersive detail of a mystery, when the focus moves back to 1865 to tell the events leading up to Crosbie Wells’s murders, the chapters then get shorter and shorter – the narrative breaks apart.
Here, the novel begins to embody the tension between the open future and rueful hindsight, the sense of predestination and the sense of free will. The summaries heading each chapter (all beginning: “In which…” take on more of the detail. Without these, each chapter would be a floating fragment of time with no context; the only reason we can place them is that we know what has come afterwards. So the novel spirals down to a singularity, a moment poised between the infinite possibility ahead for those experiencing it, and the inevitable tragedy that we know will unfold. What may seem foreordained after the event is, we see, nothing of the sort in the present moment.
I finished The Luminaries grinning from ear to ear at the experience of having read a novel so completely and idiosyncratically realised. Moments like that are one reason I read books in the first place; and they’re why, for me, Eleanor Catton belongs in the first rank of authors writing today.