Delicious descriptions: More on Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

Rightly or wrongly, I try to keep my reviews to a reasonable length. When they start creeping up to 1200 words, I worry that readers will be discouraged from reading. There’s so much to read out there – so many books, so many blogs, so many articles. And so, when my review of The luminaries started to close in on 1100 words, I decided that it was time to stop. There’s always my Delicious Descriptions series I thought …

So here I am. I’m going to introduce my follow-up with another character description, this time of the young banker:

Charlie Frost was no great observer of human nature, and as a consequence, felt betrayed by others very frequently. The air of cryptic strategy with which he often spoke was not manufactured, though he was entirely sensible of its effects; it came, rather, out of a fundamental blindness to all experience exterior to his own. Frost did not know how to listen to himself as if he were somebody else; he did not know how to see the world from another man’s eyes; he did not know how to contemplate another man’s nature, except to compare it, either enviously or pitiably, to his own. He was a private hedonist, perennially wrapped up in the cocoon of his own senses, mindful, always, of the things he already possessed, and the things he had yet to gain; his subjectivity was comprehensive, and complete.

An important aspect of the novel I omitted in my review was its relationship to the 19th century Victorian novel. I just couldn’t do it justice in a few words … Since writing my review, I’ve been roaming around blogs and reviews, reading various responses. I’m finding a fascinating array of ideas: it’s rich, it’s hollow, it’s tedious, it’s exciting, it’s innovative … and so on. Many discuss this 19th century novel aspect – and one of the issues raised is Catton’s characterisation. Some suggest, as I have too in other reviews, that the novelist should show not tell. They argue that Catton’s character descriptions, such as the one above, do too much telling. They don’t like it. I don’t see it that way, though. For me, it’s a matter of what you show and what you tell. No amount of her “showing” me Charlie Frost would result in my being able to describe his character the way she has here. I’m more than happy to read such delicious descriptions as this, and then watch the character acting it out.

Catton also invokes other stylistic features of the Victorian novel – the coincidences, the red herrings, the mixed identities, the large cast of characters, the gritty realism, and the omniscient and sometimes intrusive narrator. Is Catton being anachronistic or has she offered a fresh take? I feel the latter. For one thing, there is no clear protagonist until, perhaps, towards the end when the chapters shorten and the focus narrows to the two who we realise are the luminaries. That’s a subversion of expectations. Maybe it’s this that creates the problem.  With no protagonist for us to hang our hat on, we feel adrift, uncertain. We thought the stranger, Walter Moody, would be our protagonist but he disappears midway after the trial. Furthermore, Victorian novels tend to have clear moral arguments. This novel has themes and moral concerns, but the conclusion does not, really, resolve them. That’s not particularly subversive, but it is more modern.

Another way Catton has nodded to the 19th century tradition is through using descriptive chapter summaries to open each chapter, as in “In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika …”. You need, with this book, to be a reader who reads such details. Some readers tend to ignore  features like chapter headings, seeing them as superfluous, but in The luminaries you ignore them at your peril. As the novel draws to a close, the “in which” chapter summaries become longer as the chapters themselves, following her waning-moon astrological structure, become shorter. By the last few chapters, these so-called summaries contain information that is not further elaborated in the chapter itself. If you don’t read them, you miss some plot. I liked this playing with the form, this reminder that the book is a holistic thing. It, too, is subversive.

However, I mustn’t be too holier than thou, because I didn’t put the effort into understanding the astrological charts, which represent another nod to the 19th century (though not so much to the 19th century novel.) As I understand it, astrology, an ancient school of thought, experienced a resurgence in the 19th century after being generally discarded during the 17th-18th centuries’ Age of Enlightenment (or Reason). Goethe, no less, was an enthusiast, as was, later in the century, Jung. For me, though, reading all the text in the novel is one thing; leaving the novel to go research astrological signs and their meanings is a whole different ball-game. If such knowledge added meaning to the novel, then I’m afraid I missed it.

All this brings us to one question. Why did Catton choose to write her novel in this style? Is it riff, pastiche, reworking, or homage? I’m not sure, but it sure seems to have got a lot of people talking. As for me … I’m still puzzling!

PS One of the most interesting analyses I’ve read of the novel is by Julian Novitz in the Sydney Review of Books.

Eleanor Catton, The luminaries (Review)

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Now here’s the thing … I don’t make a practice of reading mysteries. I really don’t care about who dunnit. When Mr Gums and I watch television crime shows, I rarely concentrate enough to work out the plot intricacies, but I do watch the characters. I’m always interested in the detectives and their relationships. I want to know who they are and what makes them tick. And so, I must say that I got a little tired of the plot machinations in Eleanor Catton’s Booker prize-winning novel, The luminaries. I didn’t really want to expend effort to keep track of the complexities of whose gold went where, who told whom what, and so on. But, I did find the book an interesting read, nonetheless.

Why? Well, first and foremost because of the characters. In the first half of the novel, as the characters were being introduced, I was impressed by Catton’s understanding of human nature.  Her characters, most of them anyhow, are nuanced – if that’s not too clichéd a term. Here for example is Thomas Balfour:

When a restless spirit is commissioned, under influence, to solve a riddle for another man, his energies are, at first, readily and faithfully applied. But Thomas Balfour’s energies tended to span a very short duration, if the project to which he was assigned was not a project of his own devising. His imagination gave way to impatience, and his optimism to an extravagant breed of neglect. He seized an idea only to discard it immediately, if only for the reason that it was no longer novel to him; he started in all directions at once. This was not at all the mark of a fickle temper, but rather, of a temper that is accustomed to enthusiasm of the most genuine and curious sort, and so will accept no form of counterfeit – but it was nevertheless, something of an impediment to progress.

This made me laugh. Not all descriptions did of course, but most are insightful of humanity.

There is also humour in the book – some funny scenes, and wry asides. Since we’re on Thomas Balfour, let’s stay with him. Here he is meeting the chaplain Cowell Devlin:

‘Good morning’, returned the reverend man, and from his accent Balfour knew at once that he was Irish; he relaxed, and allowed himself to be rude.

Thomas, as you might have guessed, is English – and this of course tells us more about him than about Devlin.

Perhaps at this point I should mention the plot, though as a Booker Prize Winner, its basic premise is probably known to most of you. The novel is set in the New Zealand goldfields, Hokitika mainly, over 1865 to 1866. The plot concerns the death of one man, the disappearance of another, an apparent suicide attempt, and the provenance of a gold fortune. There are 20 main characters – 12 described as stellar, representing the 12 astrological star signs; 7 described as planetary, representing, of course, the planets; and one, the dead man, described as terra firma. It’s a lot to keep in your head but Catton does provide a character chart at the front to help.

There is a lot to enjoy while reading this book, in addition to the characterisation and humour. The plot is intricate and fun to unravel if you enjoy mysteries. The goldfields setting is realistic, with its businessmen, publicans, politicians, prospectors, whores, opium dealers and tricksters, not to mention the salting and the duffers. The writing is sure. I enjoyed her use of imagery. Grey and yellow feature throughout as do references to spirits (ethereal, emotional, and alcoholic), ghosts, apparitions, phantoms, fog and mist. These all helped convey a sense of murkiness, and of things shifting before our eyes.

The main themes are to do with truth, lies and fraud, with love, loyalty and betrayal. It’s quite a cynical world that our characters find themselves in. As the not-yet dead man, Crosbie Wells, says to the whore, Anna Wetherell:

There’s no charity in a gold town. If it looks like charity, look again.

There is, of course, but it’s rare – and, as Wells advises, you have to be darned careful about who you trust, because, human nature being what it is, where there’s gold, there’s always greed.

The big challenge of this novel is its structure. I’ve already mentioned the structure of the characters. The astrological theme is carried through into the structure of the narrative. The book is divided into 12 parts which, I learnt at my reading group, are meant to align with the lunar cycle, each part being exactly half the length of the previous part. This didn’t feel artificial, because the increasingly shorter parts provided a rhythm to the unravelling of the plot. The other point to make about the structure is that the novel commences on 27 January 1866, 13 days after 14 January when the critical plot events take place. The novel then moves forward, through the trial and its aftermath, to 27 April 1866 (Part 4). In this part, we also jump back, in alternating chapters, to 27 April 1865, when the major players in the plot start, shall we say, “orbiting” each other, if not downright colliding. The novel then progresses forward again, ending on 14 January 1866, not quite back at the beginning, but on the day that precipitates the narrative.

There is, then, a certain circularity to it all, but what does it mean? Does this structure do anything for we readers? I’m not sure. There are intricate astrological charts at the beginning of each part showing where the 12 characters are positioned, astronomically speaking, on that date. I don’t have the astrological knowledge to know whether these charts added meaning or not. The circularity does, however, suggest another potential theme – which is, as chaplain Devlin says, that:

Some things are never done.

Devlin says something else too, which is reinforced by the way the narrative progresses via the stories of the various players:

never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view.

So, in the end, where did it all leave me? Wondering, in fact, whether it was just a little too clever for itself or, maybe, too clever for me. Either way, I did enjoy the read, and was impressed by the skill with which Catton executed her tale and the insight she has into human nature. Beyond that, I think it’s best if you decide for yourselves.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) wasn’t enamoured, nor was the Resident Judge, but John (Musings of a Literary Dilettante) liked it very much.

Eleanor Catton
The luminaries
London: Granta, 2013
ISBN: 9781847088765

Beryl Fletcher, Juno and Hannah (Review)

Beryl Fletcher, Juno and Hannah

Courtesy: Spinifex Press

I’ve been pretty remiss in my blog regarding New Zealand literature. I have read and enjoyed several New Zealand novelists, such as Keri Hulme, Janet Frame and Fiona Kidman, but the only New Zealand writer I’ve reviewed here to date has been Lloyd Jones. And so I was both intrigued and pleased when Spinifex Press sent me Juno and Hannah by New Zealand writer, Beryl Fletcher.

I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard of Fletcher, but she has some form! Her first novel, The Word Burners, won the 1992 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book for the Asia/Pacific region. Juno and Hannah is her fifth novel. She has also written a memoir and some short stories. The fact that four of her five novels have been published by Spinifex Press would suggest a feminist agenda but, while Juno and Hannah certainly has an element of women being challenged by patriarchal authority, it is not a preachy or proselytising book, any more than are the other Spinifex Press books I’ve reviewed. Rather, like them, its focus is women’s experience of the world.

Hmm … that’s a long introduction. Time to get to this particular world. Juno and Hannah is set in 1920s New Zealand. The eponymous sisters are living in a religious commune, and are without parents. Despite the fact that Juno’s name appears first in the title, Hannah is the older. Two things happen in the opening pages of the book which cause Hannah to “run away” with Juno. The first is that she is punished with a month’s isolation for saving a strange man from drowning by breathing life into him – and thereby arousing fears of witchcraft, of communing with the spirits. It’s a clearly unjust punishment from (the significantly named) Abraham, who claims to adhere to “the sacred principles of Christian justice”. The second thing is her hearing that the community plans “to get rid of” 14-years-old Juno, probably to an orphanage in town. Juno, you see, requires special care as she is not quite normal – and the so-called Christian community “can’t carry a non-productive member”. This sets up what is essentially a Gothic adventure tale in which Hannah, with the help of a strange assortment of others, searches for a secure home for Juno and herself.

The novel (novella, really) is a page turner. There are good guys and bad guys (including eugenicists who have their sights on the “mentally defective” Juno), but sometimes we can’t always be sure who are the good guys. Hannah, a resilient and loyal young women but one who experienced abandonment at an early age, finds it hard to trust anyone, including those who offer help. In this mix are Hannah’s mother, her father and his mistress, the man she’d saved, and his sister. There are all sorts of Gothic archetypes here – cottages in the wood, horses pushed to their limits, storms, secrets, a sanatorium. While the story is told third person, we see much of it through Hannah’s inexperienced eyes, so when she is unsettled, so are we. And rightly so, because the world is an uncertain place.

Fletcher’s style is plain, direct, and yet also poetic. It comprises mostly short sentences, which keep the plot moving but which are interspersed every now and then with more Gothic descriptions. These are particularly effective because they are not overdone:

When the southerly blew itself out, fog crept up from the river and devoured all before it. Not one leaf moved, not one bird sang. One by one the trees melted away. The fog brought a terrible silence outside her prison that emulated the social death within.


Something had changed. The hut was withdrawing into itself; the fire had gone out, empty tins had been dropped onto the clay floor. She touched the glass chimney of the paraffin lamp. It was cold.

I enjoyed reading this book, but am having trouble writing about it. I think this is because the themes are carried primarily through the plot. By this I mean, they are conveyed by who does what with whom, who appears and disappears, who chases whom, and who helps whom. I don’t really want to explain too much for fear of giving the story away. Briefly, though, the main themes are resilience and trust. As a young vulnerable woman responsible for an even more vulnerable sister, Hannah needs to be resilient to survive the world she finds herself in. She also needs to trust, but she must temper this with wariness because the world is not a safe place. Another theme is the responsibility to protect weaker members of our society, as Hannah does for Juno, but as was not done for her when she was “abandoned” in the religious community. In fact, “abandonment” is another theme. And finally is the theme of nurturing. Clearly, Hannah nurtures her sister, but the theme is also conveyed through the act of bread-baking, which occurs throughout the novel. Hannah is good at it, so is her mother Eleanor. Providing bread to others in need is one of the final, reassuring images of the novel.

Juno and Hannah is a compelling read. There were times when the plot seemed to be slipping from my grasp. Loose ends perhaps, or maybe just part of the uncertain world Fletcher was creating.  It was never enough, however, to stop my being invested in Hannah and her trials. There’s something about Fletcher’s direct narrative style evoking an almost other-worldly setting that drew me in. I didn’t want to put it down.

awwchallenge2014Beryl Fletcher
Juno and Hannah
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2013

(Review copy supplied by Spinifex Press)

NOTE: I have included this review in the Australian Women Writers Challenge because Fletcher’s primary publisher is Spinifex Press (and because someone before me has also included her!). I hope Fletcher and any New Zealand readers here aren’t offended!

Lloyd Jones, Hand me down world

I used to find myself saying, I can’t imagine. But, I’ve since found out, you can – it’s just a case of wanting to.

Hand me down world, bookcover

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

What this character is talking about is empathy – and empathy, the having or not having it, is for me a major theme of New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones’ latest novel, Hand me down world. The novel is chock-full of characters who vary in their ability to empathise or not with other humans, to behave altruistically or selfishly towards others, to treat others with the dignity that all humans deserve or as nobodies to be ignored (or worse). These are not, in the real world, absolute alternatives but continuums along which we all position ourselves when relating to others. I think this positioning is one of the fundamental challenges of being human, and Lloyd Jones explores it in a novel which got me in from the get-go. In other words, I loved it.

This is a novel with a simple plot but a complex narrative. The plot concerns a young, poor African woman, a hotel worker, who leaves Africa using human-traffickers to find her son in Berlin. Why she does this is a shocking story revealed in the first chapter. The book follows her journey until its inevitable but not totally predictable conclusion.

What is particularly interesting about the book is how Jones has chosen to tell the story. It is divided into five parts:

1. What they said
2. Berlin
3. Defoe
4. Ines
5. Abebi

The first two parts comprise 13 chapters, each named for the narrator telling that part of the story. All but one of the narrators are first person and they chronicle their experience with the woman (whom we come to know as Ines) as she journeys to and finally arrives in Berlin. The third person narrator is “The inspector”. Why he is third person initially mystified me, but it all becomes clear when he reappears in Ines’ part. As I was reading these early chapters, I was reminded of Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s Chronicle of a death foretold because they sounded like witness statements (and that, in fact, is what we later discover they are). This is not, though, a whodunnit, any more than Marquez’s book is, although a death does occur. Intrigued? You should be.

Anyhow, it is in these early chapters that the “empathy” theme starts to play out as it is in them that we hear how Ines gets from Africa, via Italy, to Berlin. She is “helped” by a number of people including a truck driver, snail collector, an alpine hunter, a chess player and a film researcher. Some of these people help her expecting nothing, some help her only if she gives something in return (and I’m sure you can guess what that might be), some help her but would like something in return, some are unsure whether to help her or not, and so on. It certainly makes you wonder what you would do, how far out of your way you would go.

Suffice it to say, she makes it to Berlin, manages to find a job, and starts searching for her son. But, I won’t talk more on that, so you can discover for yourself how her story plays out. What I will talk about instead are some of the other features of the book that make it such an interesting read.

Several metaphors run through the novel, but they never feel overworked. One that I particularly liked concerns phantoms/ghosts. Lloyd uses them to describe the marginalised or dispossessed. The pastor (who better to talk about ghosts?) speaks of ghosts in a number of contexts, including:

The ghost remains a spectre, no more than a possibility. Something to be afraid of. A manifestation of fear, such as the opposition parties in each and every undemocratic regime in Africa.

The other ghosts – the real ghosts if I may call them that – are simply those whom we choose not to see.

Ines, of course, is one of these – and later, when she considers stealing her son, she talks of teaching him “to turn himself into a ghost”. Another motif that runs through the book is that of versions and lies. Most of the early narrators are not exactly reliable, several people do not go by their own name and there are references to things being transformed (such as snails which can change gender and lungfish which can live in and out of water). When Defoe describes the lungfish (below) we see its reference to the way people change, to how we can transform (for good) or dissemble (for ill, such as the father of Ines’ baby):

Now he arrived at the question that interested him. At which point does it become the one thing and cease to be the other? In becoming that new thing how much does it retain of the other?

One of the little side stories in this multilayered novel concerns the old blind man Ralf in whose household Ines finds work. We learn from Ralf’s ex-wife, Hannah, that after her gentle, kind father-in-law had died they found a photograph that revealed his secret past as a photographer of atrocities during the Nazi regime. Ralf’s inability to come to terms with his father’s contradictory, secret past brings about the breakdown of his marriage. Meanwhile, Ines lies, steals and pretends in order to achieve her goal of developing a relationship with her son:

I had to see him. And that need turned me into someone with no heart or conscience. I didn’t care how the money was earnt.

It is difficult in fact to know who the real Ines is … but she is a wounded soul. Who are we to judge? Throughout the novel, in fact, Jones confronts us with imperfect people and challenges us to consider both them and their circumstances. How far can, should, our empathy extend? Uncomfortable questions but ones we must face.

During Ines’ story she says “I was shown more kindness than abuse” which reminded me of Rieux’s statement at the end of The plague that “there are more things to admire in men to despise”. I like to think they’re right but, with Camus and Jones, I also know that we need books like this to remind us that we still have a way to go …

Lisa at ANZLitlovers also enjoyed this book.

Lloyd Jones
Hand me down world
Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2010
ISBN: 9781921656682

Kiwis have style!

Kiwi silhouette

Kiwi (Courtesy: OCAL via

Much as I, an Aussie, hate to admit it, those New Zealanders have style! Kimbofo has just posted, on her Reading Matters blog, New Zealand Book Council’s current promo – take a look here. Beautiful isn’t it? It springboards from Maurice Gee’s novel Going west – which reminds me that I really must read the Maurice Gee in my TBR pile soon.

On its website, the Book Council says that its mission is:

to inspire more New Zealanders to read more; to promote reading in general, but particularly to represent and promote New Zealand writing and writers – our own artists, stories and points of view.

I have not read anywhere near as many New Zealand books as I should (would like to, even!), but I have read some, most memorably:

I would recommend all of these, for different reasons. Clearly though, there are some big gaps here: the first one I should rectify is the aforementioned Maurice Gee. And, while talking about New Zealand writers, I have to admit that a few writers we claim as Aussies originated in New Zealand, including much-loved author Ruth Park and the poet and editor Douglas Stewart.

Hmmm…the more I think about it, the sooner we annex New Zealand as Australia’s 7th state the better! I’m sure Lisa at ANZLitLovers would agree!