Mur­der mys­tery is writ­ten in the stars

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kirsten Tran­ter

YOU may be fa­mil­iar with the idea that read­ers are grav­i­tat­ing to­wards short forms of fic­tion, eas­ily down­load­able and quickly di­gested on tiny dig­i­tal de­vices.

But is it true read­ers — and writ­ers — are turn­ing away from long forms? This year’s Man Booker Prize judges cer­tainly are not. The 2013 longlist in­cluded two huge nov­els: Richard House’s 912-page The Kills (which ex­pands fur­ther with mul­ti­me­dia com­po­nents) and Eleanor Cat­ton’s The Lu­mi­nar­ies, al­most slim in com­par­i­son at 832 pages.

While House did not make the cut when the short­list was an­nounced on Septem­ber 10, Cat­ton did. At 27, she is the youngest writer short­listed for a Booker, and the only an­tipodean on this year’s list. (Born in Canada, she grew up in New Zealand, where she lives.)

Cat­ton’s first novel, The Re­hearsal, a wry, for­mally ex­per­i­men­tal story of a high school sex scan­dal, won mul­ti­ple in­ter­na­tional awards when it was pub­lished in 2008. The Lu­mi­nar­ies, her sec­ond book, is a self­con­sciously long, con­vo­luted, his­tor­i­cal epic. It is so large and un­wieldy that it al­most de­mands to be read while stretched out on a sofa in the favoured read­ing po­si­tion of one of its char­ac­ters, the vil­lain­ous Mrs Ly­dia Wells, who holds a novel ‘‘ quite as if the book were an ac­ces­sory to a faint’’.

The story takes place in NZ’s 19th-cen­tury gold­fields, where men and women from all classes, back­grounds and na­tion­al­i­ties min­gle, and for­tunes can be trans­formed in an in­stant. Many of the fa­mil­iar ele­ments of sen­sa­tion­al­ist Vic­to­rian lit­er­a­ture come into play: se­crets of il­le­git­i­macy, cases of mis­taken and stolen iden­tity, forged sig­na­tures, opium dens, mur­der, black­mail, con­spir­acy and scan­dal, in­no­cence cor­rupted, virtue rewarded, rep­u­ta­tions ru­ined and re­deemed.

Cat­ton claims to have read only writ­ing pub­lished be­fore 1866, the year in which The Lu­mi­nar­ies is set, for a year while she was writ­ing the novel, to im­merse her­self in the style of the pe­riod. Yet she has not aimed to cre­ate a strict his­tor­i­cal replica, and more pedan­tic read­ers will be an­noyed by var­i­ous anachro­nisms of dic­tion and ref­er­ence.

The re­sult is a dis­tinc­tive, ar­chaic voice that makes use of some old-fash­ioned stylis­tic con­ven­tions: ‘‘ damn’’ is never spelled out but ren­dered with a dash, and each chap­ter is pref­aced with a sum­mary of the ac­tion, ‘‘ In which a stranger ar­rives’’ and so on.

But Cat­ton signals her play­ful and ironic re­la­tion­ship to th­ese con­ven­tions: the re­la­tion be­tween th­ese sum­maries and the text they pref­ace, for in­stance, be­comes grad­u­ally less straight­for­ward un­til the fi­nal chap­ter, com­pris­ing just 95 words of dia­logue, is pre­ceded by a note more than twice as long, de­scrib­ing a com­plex ar­ray of pe­riph­eral events.

At the story’s cen­tre is a set of mysteries con­cern­ing the events of a fate­ful evening, in­clud­ing one man’s death, an­other man’s dis­ap­pear­ance, a woman’s un­ex­plained col­lapse and the true source of a dis­puted for­tune in gold. The novel re­turns again and again to th­ese events, of­fer­ing grad­ual ex­pli­ca­tion.

The name of the town where the story is set, Hok­i­tika, is a Maori word that evokes sim­i­lar ideas of cir­cu­lar­ity; when Te Rau Tauwhare, the one sig­nif­i­cant Maori char­ac­ter, tries to ex­plain it to English­man Tom Bal­four, he first draws a cir­cle in the air, then says: ‘‘ Around. And then back again, be­gin­ning.’’ The story is re­plete with im­ages of re­turns and re­peat­ing cy­cles, the spin­ning wheel of for­tune, twins and mir­rors, all re­flected in the vast turn­ing wheel of the sky.

The Lu­mi­nar­ies is lengthy in part be­cause of the com­plex mys­tery it presents and un­rav­els. But its length re­sults in prac­ti­cal terms from Cat­ton’s choice of a 12-part struc­ture that un­folds ac­cord­ing to the math­e­mat­i­cal laws of the Fi­bonacci se­quence, or the golden ra­tio, in which each part is half the length of the one pre­ced­ing it, like the spi­ral of a coiled fern leaf.

The first part alone is about 360 pages, the size of a re­spectable novel, and the fol­low­ing sec­tions di­min­ish se­quen­tially to a fi­nal part of lit­tle more than a page. In ad­di­tion to this con­straint, the novel is or­gan­ised around as­tro­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples: each char­ac­ter cor­re­sponds to a star sign or other as­tro­log­i­cal el­e­ment, each part is pre­ceded by a star chart, and each

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