Eleanor Catton, 2013
Little, Brown & Co.
Winner, 2013 Man Booker Prize
A breathtaking feat of storytelling where everything is connected, but nothing is as it seems....
It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes.
A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.
Eleanor Catton was only 22 when she wrote The Rehearsal, which Adam Ross in the New York Times Book Review praised as "a wildly brilliant and precocious first novel" and Joshua Ferris called "a mesmerizing, labyrinthine, intricately patterned and astonishingly original novel." The Luminaries amply confirms that early promise, and secures Catton's reputation as one of the most dazzling and inventive young writers at work today. (From the publisher.)
• Raised—Christ Church, New Zealand
• Education—B.A., Umiversity of Canterbury; M.A., Victoria
University of Wellington
• Awards—Man Booker Prize
• Currently—lives in New Zealand
Eleanor Catton is a New Zealand author whose second novel The Luminaries has been named on the shortlist of the 2013 Man Booker Prize, thus making her the youngest author ever to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Set on the goldfields of New Zealand in 1866, The Luminaries is a mystery and a ghost story. The novel was published by Granta in 2013.
Catton's 2007 debut novel, The Rehearsal deals with reactions to an affair between a male teacher and a girl at his secondary school.
Catton was born in Canada while her father, a New Zealand graduate, was completing a doctorate at the University of Western Ontario. She grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand. She attended Burnside High School, studied English at the University of Canterbury, and completed a Master's in Creative Writing at The Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington. She wrote The Rehearsal as her Master's Thesis.
She was described in 2009 by London's Daily Mail as "this year's golden girl of fiction." (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/16/13.)
Eleanor Catton is an extraordinary writer. Her first novel, The Rehearsal, ...had the reader's mind spinning with the complexities of its narrative invention.... The Luminaries is every bit as exciting. Apparently a classic example of 19th-century narrative, set in the 19th century...the project twists into another shape altogether as we read, and continue to read. The book is massive—weighing in at a mighty 832 pages. But every sentence of this intriguing tale set on the wild west coast of southern New Zealand during the time of its goldrush is expertly written, every cliffhanger chapter-ending making us beg for the next to begin. The Luminaries has been perfectly constructed as the consummate literary page-turner..
It is, in this way, a very old-fashioned book; one that rightfully respects the joy it imparts with each of its many small revelations. And it is this sheer rip-roaring readability, perhaps, that could work against it when the Booker Prize comes to be handed out. Yes it's big. Yes it's clever. But do yourself a favor and read The Luminaries before someone attempts to confine its pleasures to the screen, big or small. It may not be the thing to say these days, but this is a story written to be absorbed from the page.
Catton matches her telling to her 19th-century setting, indulging us with straightforward character appraisals, moral estimations of each character along with old-fashioned rundowns of their physical attributes, a gripping plot that is cleverly unravelled to its satisfying conclusion, a narrative that from the first page asserts that it is firmly in control of where it is taking us. Like the 19th-century novels it emulates, The Luminaries plays on Fortune’s double meaning – men chasing riches, and the grand intertwining of destinies.
But there is a problem with characterisation, especially in a novel of this size. While Anna and Lydia stand out easily enough, the men do not. Catton has a tendency to establish characters by summarising their appearance in a long paragraph, then by giving us another long paragraph to expound on their moral views or emotional predilections. This is scarcely enough.... Catton writes with real sophistication and intelligence, so this weak characterisation is at odds with the rest of the novel, its intricate plotting and carefully wrought scenes. Can it be part of her subversion of the 19th-century narrative? I suspect not – but with a talent like Catton’s, one can never be too sure.
1. Do you believe in astrology? Do you attribute any part of your personality to your star sign? To what extent do you think the characters in The Luminaries are bound to their astrological signs?
2. In a similar vein, Eleanor Catton has given each of the twelve men the personality stereotypical to an astrological sign. Does this mean all their actions are pre-determined? And when taking into account the fact that this is a story filled with coincidences, unpredictability, and mistaken assumptions, what do you think Catton is saying about fate vs. coincidence? Does she give more clout to one concept than to the other?
3. Following the Zodiac as a guiding structure, The Luminaries is a stunning feat of construction. Some have argued that, in novels especially, high structural complexity can come at the expense of plot. In what ways does The Luminaries defy this theory?
4. Throughout the book, people are either hurting Anna or helping her. What is it about her that makes her a litmus test for other characters' morality?
5. This book is filled with stories within stories. The reader is often told multiple versions of events. For example, at the beginning of the book, do the twelve men at the secret meeting tell Walter Moody the whole truth? If not, what are their reasons for being less than truthful? Are there other times when you found yourself doubting the validity of a character's assertions?
6. Do you feel that the narrator was completely trustworthy? Like her Victorian predecessors, Catton doesn't hesitate to intersperse the narrative with moral judgments of her characters—frequently, her characters judge one another. Sometimes, the narrator "breaks the fourth wall" by addressing the audience directly. Do these techniques make the narrator more reliable than one who "feigns" neutrality? Is there ever such a thing as a narrator who is completely objective?
7. Some have interpreted The Luminaries as a philosophical meditation on time, pointing to the conflation of present and past throughout the story. Do you agree? What do you think The Luminaries is saying about time?
8. The Luminaries is set in a New Zealand that is rapidly changing as a result of the gold rush. Banking has become all-important, and the outside world is exerting its growing influence, resulting in the confluence of "the savage and civil, the old world and the new." Do any of the concerns of the people in this place and time still resonate today? Are there ways in which this story could be universal?
9. Eleanor Catton was born in Canada, lives in New Zealand, studied in the United States, and travels regularly. How do you think that her experiences as an international citizen have shaped her prose? Are there certain limitations or freedoms that Catton's nationality have on her legacy as a writer?
10. Some media outlets have asserted that The Luminaries is dominated by male characters and brings to life a male-dominated world with this story. Do you agree? If Catton were a man, do you think this issue would have surfaced? Should female writers have to take their own gender into account when writing?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)
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