I was first introduced to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries back in May of this year at an Allen & Unwin function.
The Granta representative gushed about the book (which would reward her enthusiasm by going on to win The Man Booker Prize) and many of those present were very pleased to receive a small sampler at the end of the night. Myself included.
I love reading nineteenth century literature. I love the history, the social developments, the larger than life personalities, the hope, the horrors and the effect that period of history continues to have on all of us.
Needless to say, I have read my fair share of nineteenth novels – British, American, and in translation Russian, French and German literature. Not only do these novels bring to life the century I find fascinating, I find they examine the human condition with a precision which allows readers to better understand themselves, their contemporaries and those who walked the earth hundreds and even thousand years before them.
I opened the sampler of The Luminaries while waiting for an appointment. What struck me immediately was that this was an author who understands what many nineteenth century novelists knew, that the details, whether they be physical, emotional or situational, are the essential ingredients of great storytelling. But what was most surprising to me, was that she knew this and was able to utilise that knowledge in a way which did indeed produce great story telling. Very few contemporary writers have the time, the inclination or the audience for a thorough exposition of their story. We live in the era of the gist.
We are shorthand story tellers. Eleanor Catton is not.
The Luminaries excited my imagination. I knew it was great. I told as many people I could that it was great. When I read The Signature of All Things, which is a wonderful book in itself, I was acutely aware that Eleanor Catton had decided to go even further along the road towards emulating the great nineteenth century writers than Elizabeth Gilbert. I was in love the very idea of the book. Trouble was I had no time to read such a long and well crafted book. A such a book deserves hours of my attention at a time.
But gone are the days when I would sit in my second-hand bookshop safe in the knowledge that very few paying customers would interrupt my reading. Gone are those eight uninterrupted hours. Gone are the hours once safe in my little flat. Just me and my books.
My life now is a wonderful mix of bookish mayhem but one of the great ironies of enjoying one of the best jobs in the world is that you’re given more access to books than ever but you have no time to read. Or to be more precise, no time to read for pleasure alone.
Reading is now a means to an end. Which is far from terrible. I am still reading. I am reading books I would never normally choose to read. My reading horizons have expanded and are expanding still. And I am enjoying this new phase.
But every once in a while I would like to stop, to clear the calendar, to block out the world, and find a quiet space to read for hours and hours.
And the book I would take with me if I could stop the world and get off?
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.
by Eleanor Catton
The astonishing and epic second novel from the prize-winning author of The Rehearsal – a sure contender for every major literary prize.
It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.
The Luminaries is an extraordinary piece of fiction, which more than fulfils the promise of The Rehearsal. Like that novel, it is full of narrative, linguistic and psychological pleasures, and has a fiendishly clever and original structuring device. Written in pitch-perfect historical register, richly evoking a mid-19th century world of shipping and banking and goldrush boom and bust, it is also a ghost story, and a gripping mystery. It is a thrilling achievement for someone still in her mid-twenties, and will confirm for critics and readers that Eleanor Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament.
About the Author
Eleanor Catton was born in 1985 in Canada and raised in New Zealand. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University in 2007 and won the Adam Prize in Creative Writing for The Rehearsal. She was the recipient of the 2008 Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship to study for a year at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the US and went on to hold a position as Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing there, teaching Creative Writing and Popular Culture. Eleanor won a 2010 New Generation Award. She lives in Wellington, New Zealand.