Archive for the ‘Catton, Eleanor (2)’ Category

2013 Booker Prize winner

October 15, 2013

Check KfC's review by clicking here

Check KfC’s review by clicking here

Eleanor Catton has won the 2013 Booker Prize for her 832-page doorstopper, The Luminaries. In one sense, it was a victory for Canada, our second international prize in less than a week after Alice Munro’s Nobel. On the other hand, to check the national chauvinism just a bit, while Catton was born here, her contacts since have been minimal — she grew up in New Zealand (where she now lives) and wrote this book while she was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. At the very least, we have to share the honor with our New Zealand friends. Only 28 years old, Catton becomes the youngest ever winner of the Booker. The Luminaries is her second novel — her first, The Rehearsal was equally impressive if you go back to my review. She is an exceptional writer who promises to deliver even more in the future.

The Luminaries is a Victorian melodrama/mystery. It opens with a death and an apparent suicide attempt, the arrival in a west New Zealand port of a stranger, and the gathering of a cabal of locals who are all somewhat involved in the deaths. We know all that early — Catton spends most of the novel sketching in the background and delays until the end the full details of her story.

It is also worth noting that the author uses two other devices within the novel. One that I did understand was the use of the golden mean of mathematics — each chapter contains half as many words as the previous ones. That means the first chapter is 360 pages — the last three (of twelve) total 17. Yes, it is a gimmick — but it does add momentum as we come to the conclusion in the novel’s final 150 pages. Her other device, a consistent reference to astrological symbols and relationships, completely passed me by — and I will admit I have read no review that explained why it added to the novel.

booker logoThe Luminaries would have been my second choice of those I have read on the Booker shortlist (I’ll be reading Lahiri’s The Lowland later; Ozecki’s A Tale for the Time Being has no appeal for me), after Jim Crace’s Harvest — and I will admit that one had a particular personal appeal as you will discover if you read my review. Certainly, I have no quarrel with the Booker Jury’s decision, although it is a surprise. By way of example, on Trevor’s Booker forum, the Crace had 11 out of 14 first place votes — Catton had only one.

Every bit as interesting for we Canadians, however, is what the Real Giller Prize Jury will have to say. The Luminaries was eligible — and did not even make the long list. I’m guessing, but I would suggest that Catton’s authorly “gimmicks” (I mean that as descriptive, not judgmental) landed well with the Booker Jury, but were a big problem for the Giller threesome.

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The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

September 12, 2013

Available from McClelland & Stewart

Available from McClelland & Stewart

The Luminaries opens with Walter Moody innocently entering the smoking room of the Crown Hotel in the mining community of Hokitika on New Zealand’s west shore. The year is 1866 — while Moody has trained as a lawyer back home in the Mother country, he has just arrived in the port, following his father and brother to the colonies to seek his fortune as a hardscrabble miner in the latest gold boom where economic security for a lifetime is just one lucky nugget find away.

It is also fair to say that he is young enough to want some adventure before settling down and (conveniently for both author and reader) the crew in the room at the Crown will provide it:

The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportments and dress — frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill — they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway — deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.

booker logoIndeed, Moody has stumbled upon a hastily-called conference whose participants have immediately retreated into silence upon his entry. Two weeks earlier, three things happened on a single night in Hokitika. A drunken hermit, Charlie Wells, was found dead in his cabin outside the town — the presence of a phial of laudanum and, even more important, £4,000 worth of smelted gold hidden away has made his demise suspicious. His body was found by Alistair Lauderback and his aides who are on their way across the mountain pass above the village — the West Canterbury area has earned a seat in Parliament and Lauderback is seeking to become its first member. Lauderback also features in the discovery of the second happening:

On the outskirts of Hokitika their company was further delayed. As they advanced upon the township they came upon a woman, utterly insensate and soaking wet, lying in the middle of the thoroughfare. She was alive, but only barely. Lauderback guessed that she had been drugged, but he could not elicit any kind of intelligence from her beyond a moan. He dispatched his aides to find a duty sergeant, lifted her body out of the mud, and, while he waited for his aides to return, reflected that his electoral campaign was off to a rather morbid start. The first three introductions he would make, in town, would be with the magistrate, the coroner, and the editor of the West Coast Times.

The woman is Anna Wetherell, a fairly recent (and very attractive) addition to the town’s supply of whores. She is charged with attempted suicide, once she comes to in the town gaol.

The third event of that evening is the disappearance of the town’s richest man, Emery Staines, a prospector in his early 20s who has found enormous fortune with some very significant strikes. No one knows whether he is dead, missing or simply departed back home.

A lot of questions have been raised during the two weeks since those events and each of the 12 men in the smoking room at the Crown has reason to be concerned. None is definitely guilty of anything, but each might be guilty of something — and collectively they might be guilty of a lot. While they had gathered to discuss strategy, the device of Moody’s uninvited arrival gives the author the chance to have a number of them relate their part in the background of the story. The group is a disparate lot — a banker, hotelier, shipping agent, Anna’s whoremaster (himself a goldfields magnate), and a Chinese who runs the local opium den are just a sampling of the spread.

Since the most readily apparent distinctive feature of The Luminaries is its length (832 pages), I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that it takes author Catton 360 pages to set the elements of her plot in place through the telling of those stories at the Crown. After all, if you are reading the book itself, you can physically tell that you still are not half way through by the time that first section is completed. The two excerpts that I have quoted illustrate her attention to detail on the micro-level — rest assured, she is equally as assiduous when it comes to character and the nuances of plot.

Having said that, don’t let the prospect of length put you off (unless, of course, the cascading sentence in that first excerpt has already done that — if it has, give the novel a miss). The Luminaries is a Victorian-style novel in the tradition of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life or one of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester books in that it chronicles the tale of an entire community with a large cast of characters, each of whom is given significant attention — although Catton’s community is a rough-and-tumble mining town not a class- and cleric-dominated English shire.

Indeed, perhaps a better comparison would be some recent Victorian-style mysteries such as Sarah Waters The Little Stranger or D.J. Taylor’s Derby Day both of which also found favor with Booker Prize juries and earned a place on the shortlist. These kind of novels may not be to everyone’s taste, but when well-executed they certainly impress some.

I have noted in my reviews of some other 2013 Booker titles that this year’s jury has an affection for books that use an uncommon structure: jury chair Robert Macfarlane confirmed that when the shortlist was announced this week, taking pride that they had produced a list of “novel novels”.

The Luminaries is one of those, employing a device I have certainly not seen before: Catton uses the golden ratio when it comes to determining the length of her chapters. There are 12: the first is 360 pages long, the second 158, the third 104 — and then you come to the tenth at 8, the 11th 6, the last 3. While that makes for some heavy sledding in the first few sections, it does have an interesting side effect. I can’t believe I am writing this, but the final 150 pages positively galloped along.

There is another aspect of The Luminaries on which I am totally unqualified to comment that deserves mention. You may notice from the review that there were 12 men in the Crown smoking room and 12 sections to the book. The novel has an astrological side as well: each section is introduced with an astrological chart, those 12 men each have a related house (both in the sky and on the ground) and sub-chapter headings continue the theme (“Jupiter in Sagittarius” is an example). My lack of interest in astrology is exceeded only by my complete lack of knowledge of it — those with interest and knowledge may find a theme that completely passed me by.

Eleanor Catton made a major splash with her first novel The Rehearsal, published when she was just 23 — you can count me as one of those who was mightily impressed as you can tell from my review. She is only 28 now and can already add a Booker short-listing to her resume. Not just that, but this novel, with its historical theme and all its complexity, is completely different from The Rehearsal. No one call tell at this point whether she is just experimenting with form or whether she intends to keep on doing that. What cannot be denied is that she is a young author of enormous talent — while either (or both) her books might not suit your taste, they are exceptionally well done.

Catton was raised in New Zealand and resides there now (although she wrote The Luminaries while at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop), but she was born in Canada and retains citizenship — which makes this novel Giller eligible. We will find out on Monday next if this year’s Giller jury (Margaret Atwood, Esi Edugyan and Jonathan Lethem) is as enthusiastic with this “novel novel” as the Booker Jury is. Personally, despite the non-Canadian subject matter, I would be surprised if it does not show up on the Giller longlist.

The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton

March 2, 2011

NZ cover -- Review copy courtesy WordFest

Both The Rehearsal and its youthful author, Eleanor Catton, represent a phenomenon that I predict we are going to see even more of in the near future: a young writer who has roots in no particular country (but experiences from a number) and who focuses her or his fiction on some universals that can take place anywhere. Catton was 20 and a student at New Zealand’s Victoria University when she started writing this novel. Born in Canada, she was raised in New Zealand — the year after its publication there in 2008, she headed off to take her M.A. at the well-respected Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The Rehearsal has followed a similar kind of global voyage in the book prize world. It won the 2009 New Zealand first novel award. Last spring, following publication in the United Kingdom, it was longlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize. And last week it was shortlisted for Canada’s Amazon.ca First Novel Award. Ironically, on that list it joins Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado, another author/book combination with a similar travelling history (in that case, a Filipino author now living in Canada — and a book that won the 2008 Man Asian Literature Prize). If you are looking for other examples of the phenomenon I mentioned, consider Junot Diaz in the fiction world and Naomi Klein on the non-fiction side.

So it is not surprising that The Rehearsal could be set anywhere. Its central theme is a coming-of-age story centred on not one, but a number, of mid-teens, all affected by a scandal that also could have (and has) taken place anywhere: an affair between a teacher and a student who has not yet reached the age of majority. That theme, incidentally, is not about the affair itself but rather the waves that it has produced in the community where it took place.

Canadian cover -- I prefer the NZ version

Given that storyline and the youth of the author, perhaps the most impressive aspect of this first novel is the intricate structure which Catton has used to frame this book. While the affair is always present in the book, its implications are explored in alternating chapters from two very different points of view — one “real”, one “fictional” — which increasingly overlap and co-mingle as the novel moves on.

The “real” storyline is told from the point of view of a saxophone teacher (never named) who has on her student list a number of young women who were classmates of Victoria, the student in the affair — one of them is her younger sister, Isolde, who will eventually become the most central character in this part of the story. But from the start, Catton lets us know that the saxophone teacher also extends this aspect of the story into a fantasy world that is every bit as concrete in her mind. When the book opens, she is conversing with a mother, a Mrs. Henderson, who wants her daughter to move up from clarinet to saxophone:

That was at four. At five there is another knock. The saxophone teacher opens the door.

“Mrs Winter,” she says. “You’ve come about your daughter. Come in and we’ll discuss carving her into half-hour slices to feed me week by week.”

She holds the door wide so Mrs Winter can settle in. It’s the same woman as before, just with a different costume — Winter not Henderson. Some other things are different too, because the woman is a professional and she has thought about the role for a long time. Mrs Winter smiles with only half her mouth, for example. Mrs Winter keeps nodding a few seconds too long. Mrs Winter inhales quietly through her teeth when she is thinking.

They both politely pretend not to notice that it is the same woman as before.

The saxophone teacher does not just imagine this role-playing with the mothers, she does it with her students. She imagines the dull and lumpish Bridget as wanting to play Victoria’s sister because that is a bigger role. And Isolde wanting to play Julia, the maybe-lesbian, a character that would simply be too complex for her.

If that stream of the story imagines a drama imposed on reality, the setting of the alternating thread is a drama school, the Institute, where the acting world increasingly acquires aspects of reality. The central character here is another teenager, Stanley, who aspires (successfully) to be one of the 20 accepted from hundreds of applications and auditions to study at the Institute.

“The first term,” they said, “is essentially a physical and emotional undoing. You will unlearn everything you have ever learned, peeling it off skin by skin, stripping down and down until your impulse shines through.”

“This Institute,” they said, “cannot teach you how to be an actor. We cannot give you a map or a recipe or an alphabet that will teach you how to act of how to feel. What we do at this Institute is not teaching by accumulation, collecting skills as one might collect a marble or a token or a charm. Here at this Institute we teach by elimination. We help you learn to eliminate yourself.”

“You may break or be broken,” they said. “This happens.”

Just as the dramatic aspects of the saxophone teacher’s view of her reality come to dominate that stream, a version of real events comes to loom larger in this “acting” thread of the story. The concluding — and most important — element for the first-year class is a production written, designed and performed by the class itself. They choose to do a dramatization of the affair between teacher and student, which in the community where the novel is set has become a centrepiece of conversation and rumor, again producing a mixture of what really did happen and what rumor says happened. The latter, of course, has become more accepted as fact than the former.

For this reader, the strongest aspect of The Rehearsal was the painstaking way that Catton developed the merging of these two different worlds, one based on real events in the day-to-day world, the other a dramatized version that becomes increasingly real. We all impose imagination on completing the details of our picture of what really happened in any given situation — in this book the entire cast does the same thing. The notion of “rehearsal” and “cast” are very much present in both threads of the story. And by the time the novel comes to a close, both threads have roughly equal portions of fact and imagination.

It is a significant achievement, as the novel’s success in prize competitions shows. I will admit, however, that for me the appreciation of what the author was achieving came to attract more attention than the story itself. Indeed, I am reflecting that in this review by concentrating more on structure and technique than on the characters themselves. Isolde, Julia and Stanley certainly have more depth to them as characters than this review reflects and I am sure other readers will find that. It may be a reflection of my own age and experience as a writer that the author’s finesse became more impressive than the novel itself.

Despite that caveat, this is an exceptional first book. Catton has also had New Zealand success with some of her short stories. Given the reputation and record of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — and the fact that all this published work preceded her attendance there and she is still in her mid-twenties — she is certainly an author to be watching in the future, as well as being appreciated now.


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