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The best book of the decade is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

The best book of the decade is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries
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Extravagantly arch and relentlessly stylized, humming with brainy brio and unapologetic precocity, Eleanor Catton’s debut novel, The Rehearsal, has an irresistible conceit: Set at a high school for girls, the students talk like students, and the teachers talk like they’ve been written by Cormac McCarthy. “A film of soured breast milk clutches at your daughter like a shroud,” a saxophone teacher informs a hopeful parent, by way of saying she’s too young, on the book’s first page. The juxtaposition of styles is dazzling and ecstatic. You get sublime soliloquies and exquisite sentences. Then you get the teens.

Catton herself, shockingly, was hardly much older. Twenty-three at the time of publication, The Rehearsal was her master’s thesis, written under the aegis of the creative writing program at the Institute of Modern Letters at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington. Perhaps unavoidably, The Rehearsal was received mainly as a herald for the brilliance it presaged. Catton showed “promise,” some latent talent that would reveal itself in the future. I don’t think anyone expected it to reveal itself quite so soon.

‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton. AFP

Her second novel, The Luminaries, was published five years later in 2013, and was incontrovertible evidence of Catton’s gifts — not merely in chrysalis, but even in her 20s immense and fully formed. 

A more than 800-page historical mystery whose ensemble charts the signs of the Zodiac and whose action has been mapped to stellar and planetary positions, The Luminaries is dense and heady, constructed with such elaborate vigour that unpacking it is probably best left to students of literature hard at work on their own master’s thesis. This is a book which features hand-drawn astrological diagrams outlining what a prefatory note to the reader describes, a touch flamboyantly, as “the vast and knowing influence of the infinite sky,” and whose chapters descend in page-count from 361 to six according, naturally, to the shifting phases of the moon. She’s no slouch, Catton. A prolix lunar epic, a bravura stargazing feat, the book’s plainly monumental. 

Of course, a novel worked out with such painstaking assiduousness does not exactly welcome new readers, and the size and density of The Luminaries alone has no doubt put many people off. Happily, the book itself is not nearly so demanding. In fact, from almost the moment the story unfolds in earnest, this gargantuan thing is compulsively, addictively readable, fizzing with easy pleasure and line-by-line intrigue. “Something was afoot: of this he was suddenly certain,” muses young Walter Moody, arriving at the beginning of the book to the lobby of a hotel in coastal New Zealand, where he is about to inadvertently intrude upon a fraught conclave. Something is afoot alright. Catton lets Moody — and indeed the reader — in on it with a thriller writer’s command of nail-biting tension. For a work of such grand scope and formidable intricacy, is is remarkably forthcoming with satisfaction and entertainment. 
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