The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

For some reason, in recent years I’ve enjoyed reading Booker Prize losers more than the winners so I had wavered for a long time over whether to read Eleanor Catton’s 2013 winning novel, The Luminaries. I’d picked up and put down copies in book shops several times, put off partly by its heft (it is apparently the longest ever Booker winner), partly by the spectre of the last New Zealand winner (Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, which is reputed to be nearly unreadable, I’ve not attempted it) and partly by how dreadful I found the last historical novel prize winner I read (Wolf Hall). In the end, spotting it for sale at £2.99 on the Kindle store I felt I could at least avoid the first of these misgivings.

I needn’t have worried. The Luminaries is a great read. It is set in 1865 in the New Zealand gold rush town of Hokitika. It starts as a sort of Victorian murder mystery with a dozen disparate men gathering in the bar of a hotel when an uninvited 13th man, Walter Moody joins them after having just arrived following a disturbing and rough sea trip from Dunedin. In sounding him out, the twelve share the tale of the disappearance of a wealthy young prospector, the death of local loner (and the finding of a large amount of gold in his hut), and the opium overdose of a prostitute all on the same night. Each of the twelve was a witness to part of the story and each felt that somehow they could be implicated criminally even though no crime had yet been alleged. As they share their stories each (apart from two Chinese miners whose English is inadequate for the task) pieces part of the mystery together. The book then goes on to show what each does with this knowledge and goes back to account for the events that led up to the mystery.

The book’s chapters are each headed up with an astrological sign and apparently the structure of the book is driven by the interaction of the zodiac symbols and the phases of the moon. To be honest, this passed me by completely and while it would have taken a lot of skill to effect, seemed rather gratuitous. Much of the intrigue comes from apparent coincidences and unsuspected connections between characters and their histories so I suppose this is not unlike the coincidental motion of the planets and constellations in astrology. However, the plot and characterisation are strong enough not to need a theoretical exoskeleton to tie them together. Perhaps the book wouldn’t have appealed to the Booker judges and critics without it but it felt like an unnecessary layer of pretension.

Read the book and see for yourself – perhaps the fault is mine in reading on a screen as there have been numerous articles recently to the effect that readers may read less deeply in eBooks than they do in paper books.

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Room – Emma Donoghue

Room is a short novel about the experience of a nameless young woman and her five year old son Jack living in a single room held captive by a man only referred to as Old Nick. Old Nick had abducted the woman on her way to college seven years previously.

The story is inspired by the spate of news reports of young women abducted and held as sexual hostages over the past few years like the case of Joseph Fritzl.

The twist to the novel is that it is narrated largely from the perspective of Jack. This was rather disconcerting for me as the author has created a very believable voice for him which at times sounded too much like my own five year old son, OMB. Jack has a mixture of the precocity and verbal dexterity that might come from having had such intense and consistent contact and constant communication with his bright mother, along with the skewed perspective of the world and reality that comes from having a world defined by the dimensions of a large shed.

The only glimpses of the outside world that the two of them get during their captivity are through a skylight and a small portable tv. However, as the physical world which Jack has direct experience of is so much more limited he is sceptical about the factual existence of anything beyond Room and the two adults. Without providing too much of a spoiler, the plot of the book involves the way in which the two manage to escape from Old Nick’s clutches and the second half of the book deals with their experiences outside Room. Interestingly for a book which is itself a fiction inspired by real life events, Jack wrestles with the idea of things which he had believed to be “TV” and hence unreal being actual things in the world outside Room.

However, the plot is not really the important thing in a book like this. The escape is written to be possible rather than particularly likely or plausible, albeit that it is difficult to think what would be the “normal” response of someone as abnormal as Old Nick to the set up for the escape. The more important and interesting aspects are the portrayal of Jack and his nameless mother’s navigation of the world outside Room, for one an alien world being experienced for the first time, for the other the real world that she had spent 7 years longing for. For both this results in the sort of mutual sensory overload and response played so well by Drew Barrymore in the scene in ET where she first meets ET.

It is a thought provoking book yet despite its harrowing subject-matter also often light and an easy read (I got through it in a couple of evenings after work). The book’s official promotional website is worth visiting for some more background to the writing of the book and the various inspirations for it. It carries on my trend of enjoying Booker Nominees more than winners as it lost out to The Finkler Question in 2010.

However, this is not a hard rule as I have also recently and very belatedly, finished Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America which was also shortlisted in 2010. Although Carey is one of my favourite authors and one of the few who has written more than one book that I have re-read, I have to admit that I found Parrot and Olivier to be an almost interminably long read. I suppose I only have myself to blame for not fully appreciating a fiction inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America when I had not read the book that inspired it. I’d like to have reviewed it, but sadly I don’t have enough more to say than that.

The Finkler Question – the question no-one was really asking

I know I ought to have known better and that I’ve already said in my profile that I usually prefer Booker losers to winners, but I recently read the 2010 winner, Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question”.

I can understand why the book won. It is well written and a great study in the inner lives of a couple of middle-aged men and their elderly former teacher. It is just that the whole thing was so introspective and, well, just unreal for anyone who isn’t wrestling with the concept of Jewish identity in early C21st London as seen from the perspective of a middle-aged man who is projecting his own insecurities onto a Jewish identity that he doesn’t have as a non-Jewish man.

I enjoyed the longlisted “1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” by David Mitchell rather more and am about to embark on Peter Carey’s “Parrot and Olivier in America” hoping to confirm that I prefer the losers.