The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The LuminariesThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Wild, Wild West, a frontier filled with dreamers, convicts, schemers and entrepreneurs. Some hope to make that lucky strike, others attach themselves like parasites to stars on the rise and the canniest let the eager do the dirty work while they provide the booze, drugs and women for which all men—regardless of their luck—will lay down cash money. This is the Gold Rush, the West Coast, the late 1860’s—but we’re not in California, Toto. This is the South Island of New Zealand, circa 1866, in the wet, green folds of the Southern Alps where they tumble into the Tasman Sea.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is also the frontier of storytelling—a no-holds-barred, raucous flight of imagination that I devoured with Epicurean pleasure. Jumping into its alphabet-soup cast of characters with chewy names like Emery Staines (an angelic young man, popular, rich and missing), Cowell Devlin (a man of God), George Shepard (whose flocks live in the town jail) and Anna Wetherell (a prostitute~ingenue who weathers all kinds of storms) is like tumbling in a dryer with towels and tennis shoes. You never know when you’ll get smacked upside the head with a plot twist.

This is a Gold Rush-era version of The Usual Suspects: Everyone’s got a story and no one is telling the truth. In this case, a hermitic prospector is dead, the town’s richest man is missing, a prostitute is senseless and wearing a dress lined with gold, a politician is being blackmailed, a body rises from its makeshift coffin in a doomed ship’s cargo hold and a beautiful redhead has just sashayed into town, claiming to be a widow and seeking what remains of her husband’s estate. Spinning all around this stage are twelve Luminaries: a constellation of men whose points of view we dip into throughout the novel, trying to unravel a mystery that is woven more tightly with each page.

Much has been made of Catton’s clever structure: The Luminaries is a set piece held aloft by an astrological chart that divides each part into smaller and smaller sections (Part One is 358 pages long; Part Twelve, two), according to celestial logic. But don’t be deterred by this ornamentation. I didn’t pay a whit of attention to the charts that precede each section—I couldn’t be distracted from carrying on with the story. Yet, there is something to be said for Catton’s conceit. The novel begins with a crowded, opulent jumble of characters and detail, like a sky full of dazzling stars. As its 832 pages turn, black space is allowed in, the focus narrows and individual details begin to sharpen.

The tale is told first from outside-in, then inside-out, from high to low, back-to-front, by the dead and the living, in court, in bed and in confession. Mystery is added to adventure and star-crossed love eventually conquers all.

I can’t remember when I’ve taken such delight in reading, when I felt the author’s sheer joy in writing. I’ve seen a handful of gripes that Catton’s story and style lack warmth and her characters are shallow. I dunno. I didn’t get a sense that she intended to write epic historical fiction in which the characters’ characters rise and fall and rise again and we feel morally lifted from the lessons learned. Sometimes it’s perfectly all right for the reading experience to be sheer pleasure. When it’s not only pleasurable, but intellectually stimulating, laugh-out-loud surprising and historically illuminating, you’ve got a five-star read.

Eleanor Catton has crafted a rollicking, unexpected and deeply satisfying carnival ride that ends all too soon. I doff my top hat and bow. Brava.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

The OrchardistThe Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is a rare read that cuts through the surface noise of daily life and becomes the one sound you can hear clearly, like a church bell on a still winter morning. It commands your full attention and you willingly shut out the world and surrender to the power of its images, characters and the force of its story. Amanda Coplin’s debut novel, The Orchardist, is one such book.

Set in the early years of the 20th century in the golden valleys and granite hills of Chelan county in north-central Washington state, The Orchardist is a fierce and poetic story of the Northwest frontier.

William Talmadge, the orchardist, has led a secluded, solitary life since he was a young man. Orphaned in early adolescence, he and his younger sister Elsbeth, worked on their own to maintain acres of apple and apricot orchards in the Wenatchee Valley. When she turns sixteen, Elsbeth vanishes. Whether she is taken or disappears of her own volition is a question that will haunt Talmadge as the century turns and he enters the later years of his life.

Talmadge provides refuge to two young women who appear in his orchard one day, filthy, starving and pregnant. By inviting them into his home, he opens the door to great tragedy and profound love. Talmadge is a nurturer – it is an undeniable facet of his character that he seeks to repair what has been damaged by neglect or abuse, whether it is sapling or a human heart.

But, as Talmadge learns, even the most tender care, the strongest scion of love and compassion, cannot heal all wounds.

Coplin’s prose is exhilarating. She composes with quiet confidence, her narrative rich in period detail. And although she describes of ugly circumstances– the suffering of women trapped in desperate conditions, a time when deprivation and disease swept through communities with shocking regularity – she writes with such empathy and beauty that the heart is reminded to hope. And the heart is rewarded. And it is shattered.

Coplin’s writing is uniquely and brilliantly her own, but a few favorite authors came to my mind while reading The Orchardist: Toni Morrison, for her evocative and dark period pieces and haunted women; Ivan Doig for the warmth of his characters and his passion for the West; Kent Haruf for his restraint and gentleness; Tim Winton for his truth-telling about the complicated nature of family.

I always hold my breath when encountering a familiar setting or terrain in a book: will the author have a feel for the place, its light and colors, its scents and temperatures? Will she follow the undulations of its land and the shapes in its cities? Coplin, a native of the Wenatchee Valley, not only conveys the beauty of the sage-steppe of the Cascade mountain foothills, the gold of its valleys, the shimmering glory of its aspen forests and glacial lakes, she erases the damage wrought by the past one hundred years of development. She takes you to a time when the air and water were so pure, the land so unscathed, that you cry in homesickness for a place you never really knew. The names from my home, Wenatchee, Cashmere, Ellensburg, Methow, Walla Walla, Chelan, Okanogan, Stehekin, Dungeness, are renewed and flow through this novel like poetry.

This is one of those novels I want to carry around to show everyone, to bring up in every conversation even tangentially related to reading or the Northwest. I cried when I turned its final page. I wept for the characters, for the past, for the gift of reading sentences so beautifully and thoughtfully constructed. I reckon this will be my top read of 2012. Brava, Amanda. Thank you.
View all my reviews