Canada has triumphed in the literary world this year.
Famed short story writer Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first Canadian to do so. Eleanor Catton, another Canadian by birth, received this year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize.
Munro and Catton are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to name recognition. Munro is practically the face of Canadian literature. Before accolades came pouring in for The Luminaries, it’s safe to say that most Canadians did not know Catton.
To be fair, Catton left Canada at the age of six. And this rising star is only 28 years old, making her the youngest writer ever to win the Man Booker Prize. Having also just won the Governor General’s award for fiction, I suspect Catton is on her way to becoming a Canadian household name.
Nonetheless, The Luminaries, her second book, is firmly set in the country she calls home, taking place during an 1860s gold rush in the hastily-built town of Hokitika, New Zealand.
At first the book seems to offer nothing fresh: It’s set in Victorian times, features greedy gold diggers, and is essentially a whodunit murder mystery. But don’t be fooled. This book is nothing short of luminescent.
The story begins with a bedraggled Walter Moody, fresh from Scotland, who escapes the driving rain and a traumatizing scene aboard his ship, to check in at a dockside hotel. He begins to tell his story to a stranger at the bar, and suddenly realizes that something doesn’t feel quite right. Glancing about surreptitiously, he deduces that the 12 other men gathered in the bar are only pretending to play pool, read the newspaper or swill drinks.
Beginning to sweat, Moody senses that the men — so very different in stature and class — share a dark secret. And so begins Catton’s unravelling of a tension-filled drama, which circles around opium dens, missing treasure, an abused prostitute, a young man who has vanished, and a murdered gold miner.
The slow divulging of the men’s secrets will keep you hooked. But just as tantalizing are Catton’s precise writing, incredible vocabulary and uncanny ability to pinpoint and describe quirks of human nature.
At an age when most of us are still just trying to figure out who we are, Catton seems to have figured out and mastered a complex universe of characters. Referencing fortune-seeking both in the sense of acquiring wealth and divining one’s future through the stars, Catton’s new novel is a big and sweeping epic. At 832 pages, The Luminaries has my vote for the perfect Christmas book — something a reader can savour over the entire holiday.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader living