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.