‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton

17333230Convoluted and confusing, The Luminaries is certainly challenging. The fact it’s 832 pages long adds weight [sic] to the argument. But this Gothic monster of a book is also a joy of storytelling, characterisation and language.

The 2013 Man Booker Prize winner does, in its first 300 pages or so, require considerable investment.

Newly arrived in the southern New Zealand port of Hokitika in 1866, barrister Walter Moody, looking to make his fortune prospecting for gold, inadvertently stumbles into a secret meeting of 12 respected members of the local community.

What unfolds is an extraordinary tale of murder, mayhem and mischief as each man tells their tale of events of the past few weeks. Behind a series of unsolved crimes is a complex mystery. All appear to be connected but, like a difficult jigsaw puzzle, needs to be painstakingly put together. And it’s apparent there are still a few pieces missing.

It’s the sheer number of strands revealed at this initial meeting that require attention and the patience of Job.

The banker, the chemist, the court clerk, the shipping agent and more have their say. And the evidence of those not present at the meeting is also crucial. The politician, the whore, the sea captain, the missing entrepreneur all have a role to play in events in the rough and ready gold rush port. Suspicions abound, but what’s not clear – to anyone – is what’s going on!

The second half of the book is set in real time – and advances at a cracking pace. The unexplained events and unsolved crimes start to fall into place as the jigsaw nears completion: The Luminaries becomes a page-turning gold rush tale, its finale a Hollywood-style courtroom scene.

But Eleanor Catton hasn’t simply written a Wilkie Collins-esque, nineteenth century potboiler. Her fascination with astrology and the signs of the Zodiac pattern the intricate structure of the novel.

Each section (twelve in all) is exactly half of its predecessor, mimicking the waning of the lunar cycle: the twelve men are each assigned a sign of the Zodiac and display the characteristics of their sign: the luminaries of the title – sun and moon – are the whore (Anna) and the missing entrepreneur (Emery). It is the movement of the heavens that determines the interaction between the characters.

The mimicking of the lunar cycle certainly adds to that thrilling page-turning as the reveal gains momentum. But in all honesty, the significance of the planetary configurations passed me by. This astrological framing adds little – whether the shipping agent, Balfour, is a Libran or Piscean matters not: I did not dwell on the horoscope charts at the start of each section or take note of the chapter titles referencing zodiac signs.

As a thriller, the meticulously plotted The Luminaries is compulsive. But its problem is the beginning, the first (long) section. The sheer number of characters resulted in a confusion of the crowd, each becoming indiscernible from the other. This is where that investment of effort, energy and time is needed. It is worthwhile – but understandable if the decision is that it’s all too difficult.

 

 

‘Mister Pip’ by Lloyd Jones

9781921520242The value of stories and storytelling is the core of New Zealand author Lloyd Jones’ award-winning novel, Mister Pip. Charles Dickens and Great Expectations has enormous impact on the life of a young Matilda growing up in Papua New Guinea: her impromptu teacher Mr Watts, like Scheherazade in 1001 Arabian Nights, spins tales to save lives. There’s also more than a nod in the direction of Biblical stories as well as traditional island folklore.

The outbreak of civil war on the small tropical island of Bougainville has left the young Matilda and Dolores, her God-fearing mother, stranded in their isolated coastal village. With her father working overseas and most of the young men joining the rebel army, Matilda and the remaining villagers find themselves at the mercy of fate.

Living among them is the eccentric Mr Watts, the only white person, and his wife, the crazed Grace, native of the village. As the deprivations of the civil war bite deep, so Mr Watts becomes the self-appointed teacher to the village. But there is only one book – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The children are transported to nineteenth century Victorian London and an alien language as Watts reads aloud the novel and struggles to explain ‘frost’ and ‘rimy morning’ to the islanders.

Rumours and stories of the fighting reach the villagers, yet their daily lives are not unduly interrupted. Many of the children become transfixed by the fate of the orphan boy Pip and his benefactor Abel Magwitch. But Dolores becomes deeply suspicious of the non-Christian teachings and beliefs of Watts. She sets in motion a chain of events that have devastating consequences for the whole village as rebels followed by government forces followed by the return of the rebels kill, rape and maim.

Years later, now a Dickens scholar, Matilda visits New Zealand to explore the earlier life of her teacher and mentor. There she discovers the extent Watts had fictionalised his life story in its telling to the rebel soldiers and how two fictions – his own and that of Charles Dickens – were deeply intertwined.

Mister Pip received rapturous critical acclaim on its initial publication in 2006, referred to as “magical”, “poignant” and “haunting”. It collected the overall Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for 2007 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (it lost out to Anne Enright and The Gathering).

In its remarkably short 220 pages, the award-winning novel is broad in scope, deeply symbolic yet deceptively simplistic. Scenes on the island and the fear of the civil war are powerful and compelling. Yet, towards the end, Mister Pip loses its way, as Matilda, having survived the civil war, has become an academic scholar living in a bedsit in London. The warmth and honesty is strangely missing from a novel that throughout has been full of charm (if occasionally erring on the patronising side).