Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, review in London's Daily Telegraph

The favourite to win this year’s Man Booker prize is a ghostly novel set in Victorian New Zealand. Lucy Daniel is hooked.

5 out of 5 stars
Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton Photo: Ulf Andersen
'How opaque, the minds of absent men and women! And how elusive, motivation!” So exclaims the narrator of Eleanor Catton's irresistible second novel. Four years ago her debut, The Rehearsal, about a sex scandal at a New Zealand high school, won her a cache of nominations and prizes, but hardly foretold the startling gear shift that has given us this historical suspense novel, which has made her the favourite for this year’s Booker prize, aged just 28.

A Victorian sensation novel transplanted to New Zealand, the setting (which for many readers will be familiar from Rose Tremain’s The Colour) is the South Island’s west coast in the 1860s: the gold rush, the hastily thrown up town of Hokitika. On a stormy night, Edinburgh-born Walter Moody walks off the boat into the first hotel he stumbles across, deeply shaken by an uncanny incident during his voyage; he finds himself in a room of 12 men who have a joint secret involving an opium den, a drugged whore, the ghostly ship, a dead drunk, a missing fortune and a young man’s disappearance.

The characters include a reverend, a “whoremonger”, a politician, a prospector, an opium trafficker, a fortune-teller, a jailer. Everyone is from somewhere else (almost – the novel has one Maori character); European prospectors and Chinese labourers remaking themselves in a new world at “the southernmost edge of the civilised earth”. Each knows at least one thing not at first disclosed to the others. Moody becomes privy to the mystery by “a most disjointed and multifarious report”, which the narrator smooths out for the reader’s benefit.

Catton matches her telling to her 19th-century setting, indulging us with straightforward character appraisals, moral estimations of each character along with old-fashioned rundowns of their physical attributes, a gripping plot that is cleverly unravelled to its satisfying conclusion, a narrative that from the first page asserts that it is firmly in control of where it is taking us. Like the 19th-century novels it emulates, The Luminaries plays on Fortune’s double meaning – men chasing riches, and the grand intertwining of destinies.

This world turned on its head is an eerie place. On Moody’s arrival he looks for constellations by which to guide himself: “The skies were inverted, the patterns unfamiliar, the Pole Star beneath his feet, quite swallowed... He found Orion – upended, his quiver beneath him, his sword hanging upward from his belt; Canis Major – hanging like a dead dog from a butcher’s hook.” 
Full review

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