Eleanor Catton: a luminous new star in the literary constellation
New Zealand author Eleanor Catton is not yet 28, but her second novel is one of the favourites for this year’s Man Booker Prize
Eleanor Catton: One of those rare humans who invariably grasp the essential reality
It begins with a storm and it ends in rain: no reader will arrive at the final line of The Luminaries without a smile of satisfaction. True, there may also be an element of relief – it is a long book – yet Eleanor Catton’s triumph is rooted in an elaborately plotted celebration of story.
Her second novel is a traditional narrative drawing on the Victorian notion of mystery pulsing at the heart of a tale shaped by the stars and fate’s hand; it is told well, and at length, reducing the reader to an awestruck follower.
As might be expected of a pied piper, Eleanor Catton, very bright and self-contained, has a slightly otherworldly air. She looks at the world through large eyes and immediately confirms the impression that although she dreams big, her imagination is well served by her serious delight in information and scientific fact.
She is not quite as playful as either Peter Carey or Margaret Atwood; both are former Man Booker winners, so there must be an omen in that. Within minutes of meeting, she introduced the word that is central to explaining the engine that drives her extraordinary second novel, “nerdy”. Catton, not yet 28, yet possessing the wisdom of a magus, is as astute as the owl on the necklace she is wearing.
There is something audacious, though, in our present ultra-cryptic epoch of text message and bullet points, to write a novel of more than 800 pages. Without a blink, Catton replies in her soft New Zealand accent that many far shorter books are too long for what they have to say. A good book, she maintains, says what it sets out to say in as many pages as it needs; a bad book is one that says either too much or not enough.
There is no denying that her novel is not a word too long and that her story, devised as it is on an intriguing stellar and planetary chart-like structure drawing on the signs of the zodiac, requires room to breathe. And breathe it does, often at a rapid beat.
Man Booker-longlisted before publication and now on the shortlist, The Luminaries may well provide the strongest challenge to Jim Crace’s Harvest for the 45th prize, which will be awarded on October 15th – providing that both can hold off the quietly insistent presence of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland.
Catton is very calm and was delighted to make the longlist; the shortlisting is a bonus. She is aware that her novel’s length has tended to dominate discussions and is politely irritated by that, as she is by the constant references to historical pastiche. She has received very good reviews, yet true to her precise intelligence, she points out that some have missed her intentions.
Catton is one of those rare humans who invariably grasp the essential reality. The Luminaries, which concerns a murder and is set in and around Hokitika in New Zealand in the gold rush year of 1866, has been compared with Dickens but is far closer to The Brothers Karamazov and Moby-Dick, in that she too is aspiring to write a novel about something and everything. One of the surest routes into the essence of The Luminaries is an observation Dostoyevsky, then 18, arrived at in a letter he wrote to his brother in 1839: “Man is a mystery, if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.”
Walter Moody, Catton’s gleaming hero of sorts – “like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior” – is no Alyosha Karamazov, yet he is gradually drawn into a search for truth. At one point in The Luminaries we are told “one should never take another man’s truth for one’s own”.
Whatever about her depth of reading and investigative pursuit of knowledge, Catton’s feel for fiction appears to come from within and also from long hours spent hiking through the lush, empty beauty of the New Zealand landscape.
She smiles on hearing she comes from a country graced with wonderful birds and well, not much else: “It’s true, we have amazing bird life and no native mammals.” There is something sinister about that official warning, she says; one hears that the only things to fear in the New Zealand countryside are the weather “and other people”. Strange crimes are often committed, she adds, smiling in her quiet way.
Catton, though not without a sense of fun, is intensely cerebral and very exact. Her direct gaze suggests that she is wondering what her interlocutor ate for breakfast, and more importantly, why it was eaten, yet it is obvious that her mind is also pursing an entirely different set of thoughts; her brain is a busy place.
Catton is a New Zealander who was born in Canada when her father was completing his PhD in the University of Western Ontario. She is the youngest of three siblings, “the other two were born in New Zealand”. Among the highlights of her outdoor life growing up in Christchurch was a marathon cycle trip with her father. Just as I am expressing envy Catton is recalling how gruelling it was, while agreeing that New Zealand is beautiful, paradise, almost like the west of Ireland.
On completing her primary degree at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, she did a master’s at the Victoria University of Wellington. For her thesis she wrote a novel, The Rehearsal. It secured her MA, and also set her on the path to a literary career. It tells the story of an affair between a teacher and one of his teenage pupils, which causes a local scandal that is quickly intensified when the local drama school decides to bring it to the stage. Catton smiles serenely and mentions that the novel was published in New Zealand by a small university press.
By the time she had arrived at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, already with a published novel, everything was about to move a stage further. An agent had noticed The Rehearsal, and it was bought by the UK publisher Granta, which offered Catton a two-book deal, one of the books having already been published, never mind written. She then turned to an idea she had happened upon while reading a newspaper archive before she had written The Rehearsal; that idea became The Luminaries.
Hokitika, on the west coast of South Island, is a magical setting for a novel. Her schema of astrological charts as an organising principal, with a dozen main characters born under the 12 different star signs makes her colourful, highly entertaining novel sound far more contrived than it is. But then Joyce also used a given episodic structure – Homer’s Odyssey in Ulysses – and it works. The only time a New Zealander has won the Man Booker prize was in 1985, the year Catton was born. The book was Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, which Catton has never read.
Catton teaches creative writing in Auckland. So what are the most important qualities for a writer? “There are three things I tell my students a writer should have: curiosity, empathy and kindness.” It obviously must have something to do with the stars as well. She appears to have already figured that out.
The Luminaries is published by Granta