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Updated: November 30, 2013 21:11 IST

Whodunnit through a prism

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The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

This year’s Booker winner is a stellar read, where old-fashioned story-telling triumphs over the new-fangled zodiacal structure.

What an absolute humdinger this year’s Booker winner has turned out to be! This is a triumphant return of old-fashioned story-telling — unabashedly lengthy, omniscient and annotatory. I must confess I started it with some trepidation, its 800-odd pages and purported astral structure doing nothing to recommend it in my eyes. But once picked up, dislocated shoulder be damned, it just would not be put down.

Of course, we all knew this was the Booker’s youngest winner. And I, in turn, found it impossible to ignore that the book comes from a 28-year-old. It displays a mastery over language and structure that can yet be explained by erudition, but the young Catton’s command over character analysis is remarkable. She dissects her 20-strong cast with clinical precision, yes, but also with a degree of empathy and insight into the human psyche that belongs to a far older person. It’s easy to see a measure of precocious literary genius here that must have made the choice of Catton for the award a fairly straightforward one.

The other highlight is the incredible degree of control in evidence. For a novel that deals in Victoriana not just in terms of setting but in sheer theatricality of plot, untrammelled emotionality, and Dickensian sweep (it would have been serialised in his times) not for an instant does it trip into sentimentality or wander into Gothic territory. And this despite playing with fire — there are twin-born souls and opium hazes; laudanum, apparitions, black villains; there’s the sweeping hand of Fate and fantastic coincidences that would put Hardy to shame. The craft is in how Catton adroitly puts this tricky material together with poise and a Shakespearean air of timelessness. Thus, when Moody gatecrashes the 12-man cabal’s secret meeting in a hotel parlour and finally gets to hear the tale, Catton masterfully takes over the telling of it: “We shall here excise their imperfections and impose a regimental order upon the impatient chronicle…” She then proceeds to present each man’s version in a Rashomon-like retelling which creates the tight tension that impels the story forward.

For all its seeming complexity, at heart the book is a fairly straight whodunnit, set around a hermit found dead in his cottage and a prostitute found unconscious from an opium overdose. But the book has no intention of getting down quickly to finding out who done it. Instead it takes a luxurious breath, sits down next to the fire with a drink, and pleasurably proceeds to walk you down the Byzantine alleyways of motivation, character and history. It is set in a gold-rush shanty town populated by a motley crowd of hoteliers and whores, pimps, parsons and bankers, and native Maoris elbowed out by the bustle of power. There are no lead protagonists to monopolise either the tale or our empathy. Each one gets his time on stage and we are left feeling like a jury, trying to sift evidence and motives, to apportion blame or sympathy. With the point of view constantly shifting, this is no mean task. Underlying this is the realisation that there are no absolute truths, just half-truths, points of view, perspectives; with even the worst offenders presented with dignity, with even something as incendiary as Colonial racist attitudes given no slant. It’s dangerous because it leaves one with no comforting ideology to cling to, but it works because Catton stages it so empirically.

A lot has been said about the book’s astronomical plot structure, with each character assigned a zodiac sign and each section preceded by a planetary chart. For me, this structure was a mere conceit. It affected the story itself not a whit, and I completely ignored it. For the zodiacally inclined, it could possibly provide hours of happy entertainment. The other structural ploy — that of each segment getting progressively shorter — is an unhappy affair that betrays the luxurious, protracted start. Just when you look forward to an elaborate denouement, suddenly you get poetic compaction. Almost everything becomes a voiceover and the characters are thrown off-stage. It’s a minor complaint, though, and one that comes I suspect as much from wanting the book to go on as from literary dissatisfaction.

The Luminaries; Eleanor Catton, Granta Publications, Rs.799.

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