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.

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Book Club Redeemed: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

DocDoc by Mary Doria Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you follow me Goodreads, you’ll know I’ve disliked, vigorously, most of the titles our book club has selected in recent months. My reading philosophy forbids wasting time on books that don’t capture me in their opening chapters, but I’ve had to bend my rules to honor book club commitments. Number Five—a memoir—fared better, but only by a thread. Number Six was my pick. I loved it. I feel sheepish because it was my selection, but after months of insufferable duds, I went after an author I adore.

Enter Lucky Number Seven. Last month one of our club members selected Doc by Mary Doria Russell for our November read. Cue inner cheer and moan. Russell has been on my “must-read” list for eons. Okay, truth. She felt like one of those writers I should read. But the spark hadn’t lit. A book club obligation seemed like a good way to tick the Mary Doria Russell author box. But, God, a WESTERN? Do I have to read a book about Doc Holliday? Seriously? Sigh.

O vos pusillae fide

He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.

And from this sentence on, I was spellbound. I have a new writer crush (sorry Jess Walter, you’ve been displaced. Love ya,babe).

Doc is based on a very brave conceit. Russell takes an element of our collective cultural imagination—the sepia-toned Wild West—and gambles that we’ll embrace her rendering of its most iconic figures and places. Or that we’ll even care about one more depiction of the Earp boys and world-weary, hack-a-lung Doc Holliday. What Ms. Russell needs to know is that she touched this reader, who had to go out of her way to pick up a novel set in the American west, with some of the most sublime storytelling I’ve read.

John Henry Holliday became a dental surgeon at twenty-one and was stricken with tuberculosis that same year. He boarded a train for the West, in search of drier climes. By twenty-two he was a heavy drinker and gambler. By twenty-six he was a frontier legend with a permanent limp from a gunshot wound and a multi-lingual Hungarian aristocrat-turned-prostitute on his arm. And he hadn’t yet set foot in Dodge City, Kansas.

But follow Mary Doria Russell there, as she takes Doc to his single season of happiness. She will prove to be a cracker-jack guide—nimble, sophic, soulful. Doc is a character study, with its title protagonist the sun around which a host of personalities spin. Russell sinks the reader into the skin of her characters-and there are heaps, as evidenced by The Players section that prefaces the narrative. But it’s Doc as the sun, Kate Harony, his companion, as the moon, and Wyatt Earp as the grounded Earth who make this universe breathtaking and epic.

Russell creates a world that will consume each of your senses until you are wiping the Kansas grit from your skin, gasping at the sweet-sour burn of bourbon, pausing to wonder at the beauty of a prairie sunrise, cringing at the wet iron scent of fresh blood, and hearing the crack of gunshot and drumming of hooves as Texas boys pound into town for a night of cards and whores. The details of time and place are artfully offered without ever being cliché. We know this world—we grew up with these legends—yet Russell brings freshness to the American frontier. It’s not retread. It’s raw and unaffected worldbuilding.

The narrative is a slice of Doc’s life. Outside the brief chapters chronicling his early years and an even shorter Epilogue, Doc takes between April 1878 and April 1879. It’s the year Doc spent in Dodge City, Kansas, endearing himself to Wyatt, Morgan and James Earp, an Austrian priest, an Irish entertainer, a Chinese entrepreneur, not a few prostitutes (though Kate was his only lover) and making enemies with just about everyone else. Russell weaves a subplot into the narrative—the suspicious death of a young faro dealer of black and Indian heritage. The investigation of the boy’s death becomes the linchpin of the story, allowing us to witness the players and politics at work in Dodge City.

This is as fine a work of historical fiction as I any I have read. I’m not well-versed in literature of the American west, but I have taken John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Louise Erdrich and Cormac McCarthy out for a spin. Doc slips easily into the tremendous canon of these writers.

The moment I turned the final pages of the Author’s Note I hopped lickety-split to Mary Doria Russell’s website, where she had announced the same day a sequel to Doc, entitled Epitaph, will be released early 2015: Epitaph update: bad news, good news And she’s committed to writing a novel about Edgar Allen Poe. Oh, we lucky readers!

Doc makes up in spades for the months of dreary book club reads which preceded it.

Mary Doria Russell, you are my huckleberry.

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