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
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.