Murder mystery is written in the stars
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