The Luminaries, or How Much I Hate Victorian Literature

Before starting it’s important to be clear that this is not a review of The Luminaries. The Luminaries is extremely well written and I can have no criticism of it in that respect that would be worth a jot. Just re-read that last sentence and it’s clear why.

But here’s the thing: I got no enjoyment reading it. I so wanted to love it and I so wanted to be all OH EM GEE RAVY DAVY GRAVY about it but OH EM GEE the reading was a chore. Seriously, I do NOT expect to feel about my reading the same way I feel about vacuuming, and I do not mean like I feel when I see that video of the cat on the Roomba.

It was like vacuuming a house of infinite rooms, every time I thought I’d got to the end of the hallway there’s another room! And another! And another! Ad infinitum.

It’s my own fault. Despite it being a Booker Prize winner (almost guaranteeing my undying devotion because I AM SNOB), despite it being a New Zealand author (Kiwis represent!), there are two words associated with The Luminaries that should have instantly seen me politely clapping from the sidelines but not actually getting involved.

Victorian. Literature.

It’s enough to send a chill down one’s spine.

18th century literature? Love it. Regency lit (Austen, et al)? A measured fan. Victorian erotica? Hilariously tacky, juvenile and often disturbing. Serious Victorian lit, a la Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Trollope, Gaskell… sorry, I snoozed off for a moment there.

Basically I find it tedious and way too self-important, and, ironically, verbose. As with everything, there are exceptions – Thackeray and Stoker – but in general what you find is the literary equivalent of the Mona Lisa reduced to a paint-by-numbers version. Greatness, ruined.

William Makepeace Thackeray photo

This man is a comic genius.

The mysteries are the worst because the “ghostly vision” always turns out to be someone sleep walking and the bad guys are naughty foreigners trying to steal the treasure. They’re like every plot EVER of Scooby Doo.

So my problem with The Luminaries is no matter how well it is written, no matter how much of a “pastiche” it is, no matter how brilliantly it managed to take the Vic Lit format and turn it on its head, by the time it got to that point I was staring at nothing and nodding slightly.

The Luminaries cover picture

It does have a fantastic cover though.

Do I think people should read it? Absolutely, if only to make up your own mind. Do I think it’s an important contribution to books in general and New Zealand books in specific? Yes, there is NO doubt. Did it deserve The Booker Prize? Yes, because they don’t judge it on my taste. Am I going to read other books by Eleanor Catton? Yes, absolutely, and keen to get my hands on a copy of The Rehearsal actually.

But The Luminaries will always remain a big, black hole in my reading life.

Bookwatch – Herald on Sunday, 11 August 2013

Here’s my Bookwatch column from today’s Herald on Sunday (11 August 2013):

Nga Tau ki Muri : Our Future

By Ans Westra with Hone Tuwhare, David Lange, David Eggleton, Brian Turner & Russel Norman (Suite Publishing)

Celebrated photographer Ans Westra (Wash Day at the Pa) is back in print with another beautiful and moving portrait of New Zealand in all its glory and ruin. For Nga Tau ki Muri, Westra is joined in text by some great names. The focus is our country, our nature, and our footsteps upon it. The production quality is fantastic, with cloth bound embossed covers. This book is a thing of beauty.

At the Dying of the Year

By Chris Nickson (Severn House)

This is well-written, extremely well paced and quite enthralling. The year is 1733, Richard Nottingham is the Constable of Leeds and three children have just been found battered to death. Nottingham and his team are on the tail of a serial child-killer. Nickson’s skill is in telling a tale and letting us into the lives of his protagonists. He also goes to lengths to bring to life the grit and sights, sounds and smells of 18th-century England.

A History of Food in 100 Recipes

By William Sitwell (Harper Collins)

This book is entertaining and mouth-watering. Sitwell, a food magazine editor, goes right back to the ancient Egyptians first making unleavened bread and takes us on a ride through food history in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas. He presents each recipe in the original, accompanied by tidbits of history, food and eating. A fascinating journey through history that shows how our obsession with food has never waned.

The Daylight Gate

By Jeanette Winterson (Random House)

A thrilling and quick read, dealing equally brilliantly with the spiritual and the corporeal. Set in 17th century England at the height of the witch trials, the story centres on Alice Nutter, who is set on a collision course with Thomas Potts, discoverer of witches.  The Daylight Gate is visceral, capturing the smells, sights, diseases and fear of its time and place. It is a bone-chilling fear Winterson is dealing with here – the complete unpredictability of life when you don’t own your soul, your brain or your body.

scan of Bookwatch 11 August 2013

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

The Bookman's Tale cover image

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett, Text Publishing, ISBN 9781922079336, RRP $37, Available 26 June.

Billed as “a novel of obsession” and “a tale for book lovers”, The Bookman’s Tale should be a delight for anyone who loves history, books and good writing.

I say “should”, because sadly it’s not.

Insert REALLY SAD FACE here.


The Bookman’s Tale followers Peter Byerly, antiquarian bookseller who’s deeply mired in grief for his late wife, Amanda. Peter opens a book in a musty bookshop, only to discover a watercolour miniature bearing a startling resemblance to his late wife. From there we’re on a murder mystery journey that takes in Shakespeare (and the old “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” conspiracy), book forgery, Victorian art and a really, really idealised woman.

Here’s my list of things what I wished weren’t part of this book:

  1. Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. Shakespeare at all. The Shakespearean age passages in particular have no air of authenticity. Instead they read like an Elizabethan name-dropper. Oh look there’s young upstart Shakespeare! There’s Robert Cotton! There’s Christopher Marlowe! And they’re all drinking ale and whoring and writing and almost saying “fie”.¹ Also: sonnets! Hilarious! It’s all way too obviously winky-winky, history comes together, for me to enjoy. Bah.
  2. Murder mystery. The butler did it in the kitchen with the candlestick. Or not, but you’ll feel like that at the end, everything is just so nicely wrapped up. And so conveniently it feels like the ending to an hour mystery drama. Bah.
  3. Idealised woman. Maybe I am heartless and unromantic but Amanda (dead wife) is only seen through Peter (on account of the deadness) and in her eyes she is the most beautiful, most angelic, most sexy, most intelligent, most rich woman you’ll ever meet. And not in the least oiky, irritating and privileged. She hangs on his every word, loves it when he watches her from afar for weeks in a library and she has monogrammed stationery. At college, in the ’80s she wears:

…in place of the unofficial uniform of jeans and a T-shirt, an impeccably tailored black suit, with pleated trousers and a crisp white blouse.

No, not irritating at all.

Sigh. I think lots of people will like The Bookman’s Tale, especially if they don’t think too hard about it. Unfortunately I found it too trite and too convenient.

¹Bugger. Just found this:

Fie on you, then fie.

Short reviews for a rainy Sunday

The Secret Life of James Cook cover imageThe Secret Life of James Cook by Graeme Lay, 4th Estate, ISBN 9781775540120, RRP $36.99, Available now.

The Secret Life of James Cook is a fictional account of Cook’s early years, how he entered the Navy, his early Naval career and ends with his first circumnavigation of the world.

It also presents something of a problem: apparently the secret life of James Cook was really boring. Fictional accounts of real events need to commit to one of two things – either they are strictly sticking to facts as known (ma’am) or they throw themselves into the fictional and really go all out. The Secret Life of James Cook does neither of these things and therefore suffers from a sense of total blah. Cook comes across as a swotty naval wonk, his wife Elizabeth is insipid and Banks is tedious. Which I suspect Banks wasn’t.

I think this sums it up:

He read avidly the work of the Greek mathematician Euclid, in particular his Elements, which had been lent to him by Lord Colvill. He found it a brilliant work of geometry. Learning that Euclid was born in 300BC, he appreciated that the mathematical knowledge of the Ancients was remarkable, and that his theories were highly applicable to the art of navigation.

I’m not a violent person but this made me want to beat up the youngish James Cook, just a little bit.

The Daylight Gate cover imageThe Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson, Random House, ISBN 9780099561835, RRP $19.99, Available now.

Winterson is an always surprising author and she can write a tale like nobody’s business. Everyone knows Oranges are Not the Only Fruit but my favourite is Sexing the Cherry, which was an historical novel with a hallucinogenic bent. Which is why I was excited to read The Daylight Gate – also an historical novel this time set during the reign of James I and dealing with witch trials.

Winterson doesn’t disappoint. The Daylight Gate is visceral, grossly capturing the smells, sights, diseases and fear of north England in the 17th century. It is a bone-chilling fear Winterson is dealing with here – the complete unpredictability of life when you don’t own your soul, your brain or your body.

The story follows Alice Nutter, a rich woman who has the misfortune to ride (literally) into the middle of a grotesque family assembly being broken up by equally grotesque figures of authority. This sets her on a collision path with Thomas Potts, discoverer of witches.

The Daylight Gate is a thrilling and quick read, dealing equally brilliantly with the spiritual and the corporeal.

At the Dying of the Year by Chris Nickson

At the Dying of the Year cover image

At the Dying of the Year by Chris Nickson, Severn House, ISBN 9781780290423, UK edition available now, US edition 1 June 2013.

I have to say I do like a good historical crime. Separately, those two things are not necessarily my favourite but together they just make sense.

They do have to be well-written though and fortunately At the Dying of the Year is well-written. It’s extremely well paced and enthralling.

The year is 1733, Richard Nottingham is the Constable of Leeds and three children have just been found. Dead, stabbed and battered. This is not a one off. Nottingham and his team are on the tail of a serial child-killer.

I describe this as crime rather than mystery because, really, there’s not a lot of mystery here. Nickson’s skill isn’t in weaving a whodunnit, it’s in telling a tale and letting us into the lives of the protagonists of his story. We go inside the minds of Nottingham and his deputies, and see how they view their times and lives.

Nickson really brings the personal to the fore in his characters, particularly focusing on their fears and uncertainties and he’s not afraid to deal to his readers emotions to push the story forward. He keeps the story moving at just the right pace, fast enough to keep interest but without sacrificing the cerebral slower moments.

There’s a lot of historical detail here and Nickson does go to lengths to bring to life the grit and sights, sounds and smells of 18th century England. He’s not always entirely successful, with some of it feeling a little forced and not quite on the button but this is a minor quibble.

If you like a good crime story I highly recommend making the effort to seek this one out.

Ghosts of Parihaka by David Hair

Ghosts of Parihaka cover imageGhosts of Parihaka by David Hair, Harper Collins, $24.99, ISBN 9781869509323, 4 April 2013

Ghosts of Parihaka is book 5 in David Hair’s popular Aotearoa series, and it’s the penultimate instalment. It’s nice to have some NZ YA fantastical fiction kicking around. Our hero, Matiu Douglas, is able to slip between two worlds – our modern day world of New Zealand and the parallel country of Aotearoa, a ghost world that combines elements of NZ history and myth. In Ghosts of Parihaka Matiu’s best friend Riki goes missing on a school trip to Parihaka – caught up in the Aotearoa-en version of events.

It’s a perfectly enjoyable read with a few points of detraction but I’d still be recommending this to most Kiwi kids and teens. Leaving aside questions of cultural appropriation, there’s still a bit of a thrill in seeing Maori and Pakeha myths and legends combined in a skilful way.

Detractions first: it suffers a bit from penultimate curse, in that there are interesting storylines that are started or advanced in Ghosts of Parihaka but not wrapped up, and that makes it not quite as satisfying a read as it could be. There’s a fine line between teasing and irritating and Hair doesn’t always get it right.

But my biggest gripe would have to be the female characters. I think this is a book designed to attract boys but I do wish it had a female character who stands on her own, rather than solely in relation to the males.

Ultimately though I think Hair is doing a great job of exploring how two separate cultural identities can be combined into one national identity through shared history and knowledge.

Plus the kids will like it.