Tag Archives: Dickens

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The-LuminariesLet me start by remarking on how immensely large this book is. It is 832 pages long. In fact, it’s the longest book to have ever won the Man Booker Prize (it won last year) and Eleanor Catton is the youngest author to win that award (she’s 26). I’ve been working on my own novels for 4-5 years at this point, and if I added everything together, it might be 400 printed pages.  And I’m 33.  So…way to make me feel totally pathetic, Eleanor Catton.

Moving on from my jealousy, let’s talk about the book. It is set during the New Zealand gold rush during the mid-19th century. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in New Zealand before. I suppose the Lord of the Rings is the closest, only by its association with the movie locations. The New Zealand gold rush seems to have been very similar to the gold rush here in the US. When you have the chance to make a fortune, you attract all manner of people, and nearly everyone is from a different country. Some are high-born and wealthy, seeking to bring the civility to the frontier, others are rough workmen, bringing a distinctly not-civil attitude to their labors, others poor servants or slaves. And you attract all the things that survive and thrive in the periphery of these male-dominated, mostly lawless, harsh places in the world. Prostitutes, gambling halls, strong drinks, opium, and minority migrants (mostly Chinese and Mexican/Native Americans during the US gold rush, but Catton’s book features a Maori man and two ‘Chinamen’). The most unifying thing about these places, is that all manner of people who would, 50 years earlier, have never met, are occupying the same little patch of land and hoping to radically change their lives.  This is what Hokitika, the town, looked like during the gold rush:

Hokitika_township_2C_ca_1870s_2_m-1

Similar to most mid-19th century tales, The Luminaries features a long cast of characters. There’s a page in the front listing the character, their occupation, etc.  It’s a list of nearly 20 characters. That alone could make it difficult to hang onto all the facts of the story. But (again a common facet of Victorian novels) there are several people who go by false names, change their names, have several naming variations. It can be very complex to remember which descriptions, stories, and actions are attributed to which character. The book features a Maori man, Kiwis, Scots, Irishmen, Englishmen, Chinese men, Australian men & even a few women. Catton is extremely good at bringing each of these characters to life, of offering a perfect snippet of how and what they see in the world, and how those traits will motivate their actions. Trends have changed, throughout the last few hundred years of literature, in how much or how little to reveal about characters, but I think she strikes a perfect balance. Each character is almost immediately distinguishable, recognizable, but not so well known as to prevent a surprising turn of action or character.

The plot of the book revolves around a large fortune (£4000, which would be approximately £325,000 now), and how it passes from one character to the next. I think every character has their hands on it at one point or another.  It turns up as gold as fine as sand (if this statement confuses you, I recommend you watch Treasure of the Sierra Madre), as large nuggets of gold, as bricks pressed and measured. It is stuffed into a dress, in a bag under a bed, buried in the desert, stolen from a safe, hidden piecemeal throughout a dead man’s house.  It turns up everywhere, and it’s hard to keep straight who and where and why and how this gold passes through these states.

To add to the many characters and many incarnations of this fortune, the story is told through a series of parts, spanning forward and backward in time at will. It’s hard to keep track of who, what, when, and why. As The New York Times put it in their review, “it’s a lot of fun, like doing a Charlotte Brontë-themed crossword puzzle while playing chess and Dance Dance Revolution on a Bongo Board. Some readers will delight in the challenge, others may despair”.  Very true.  I found it fun to read, because the storytelling was so good. But it’s a circular and confusing novel, and there were portions that left me confused.

The structure of the novel–as its title suggests–is based on astrological concepts.  I’m not a believer in astrology, so many of the allusions and illustrations of the different signs were probably lost on me. Each part opener identified the date, the astrological signs and their positions, but I can barely remember my own sign, let alone the other 11.

8657216However, I have it on good authority (Wikipedia) that each of the 12 main male characters involved in the ‘mystery’ of the gold corresponds to one of the 12 astrological signs. The other 7 (living) characters correspond to ‘heavenly bodies’, i.e. the planets. Maybe to people more versed in astrology (or astronomy), this conveys some significance. But not to me.  I had a hard time finding my own sign in the little drawings, and I have no idea what the other scratches mean. Might as well be in cuneiform.

But it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know or believe anything about astrology to enjoy the book. You do have to put forth some effort to pay attention to the shifting timelines, the ups and downs of each character’s journey, and everything said about the elusive gold. I really enjoyed reading this book. Most of the time, as Jane Austen said, “if a book is well written, I always find it too short.” This was not the case with The Luminaries. I enjoyed it as I read it, but at the end I felt a bit spent. I exerted a little more energy to get through than I got back in satisfaction, and that is disappointing. I think it could have done with a trim here and there. All of the book is well written, but more words are crammed in than the story needs to tell itself. Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, is under 400 pages, so I think that will be do-able.

They are discussing a TV miniseries, which I think could be excellent. This is the sort of sweeping Dickensian story that works fabulously in a 6 or 8 part miniseries, particularly if they actually film it in New Zealand.  If it ever plays in a format to which I have access, I will definitely watch.

 

 

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TV Review: Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife DVD cover

Let me preface this by saying that I don’t like babies, and wouldn’t normally be drawn to this show.  The only thing I might like less than babies is the process by which they come into the world.  So…take those things, remove the last 70 years of medical technology and improvements in standard of living, and you have Call the Midwife. Oh, and add some nuns (one of my big fears in life).  Not my favorite show.

The show is based on the memoirs of a midwife who worked in the East End of London in the 1950s.  It was an absolute ratings smash in the UK when the first season aired, and they’ve already started airing series 2 in the UK.  PBS picked up the rights to series 1 and the Christmas special, and aired them during the fall and early winter. The second season will start on PBS in March. A third season is already planned.

The show primarily follows Nurse Jenny Lee, who has just come to the East End to start her career as a midwife.  She is shocked (as was I) at the horrid living conditions in the slums.  Jenny is pretty much perfect, her only vice being that she once had an affair with a married man. She is boooring.  In addition to the lovely actress playing her, Jessica Raine, we get these voice-over bits from older Jenny, voiced by Vanessa Redgrave.  These drove me crazy.  It was always ridiculously vague stuff like “I learned what true love was that day…” or something equally inane.  I especially hated these voice-overs.

The highlight of the entire series is the character of Chummy, a distinctly upper-crust lady who (despite her upbringing) shows strength and courage in confronting new challenges and terrible living conditions.  She is also hilarious. Miranda Hart does a great job playing the character both for laughs and as a very real person.  Despite looking something like a linebacker compared to the svelte Nurse Lee (on the right), Chummy (on the left) has an adorable romance with a local constable.

Chmmy and Jenny

The other girls look lovely in their period costumes, but the show makes no effort to distinguish them as having lives of their own. I can’t even remember their names.

Then there are the nuns.  Pam Ferris (aka Aunt Marge) makes an appearance as the crabby Sister Evangelina, and Judy Parfitt (she played the terrifying Mrs. Clennam in BBC’s Little Dorrit) is the slightly mental/eccentric Sister Monica Joan. Again, the rest are a blur.

I had a few problems with this show:

1-Almost every episode contains not-so-subtle plugs for the NHS. The Christmas special, for example, shows the nurses/nuns taking a local homeless woman and getting her cleaned up and examined at the doctor, the dentist, and the eye doctor. She complains that she doesn’t have the money and they have to explain that it won’t cost anything.  The NHS was a new thing then, and it undoubtedly made a massive difference to the lives of the poor and destitute in London.  I’m not against the NHS, in any way. As someone who spent most of the last ten years without health insurance, and still debates whether going to the doctor is worth the copay, I get the value of the NHS.  But I don’t need it shoved down my throat.  And I don’t think anyone who is against the NHS (very few Brits, if compared to the people against public medicine in the US) is unaware that it helps people.  The propaganda was just really tiring after a while.

2-It was dull.  It was ass-numbingly dull, to borrow a phrase. Even though each episode had highlights like birth and/or the tragedy of death, they all ended with the same sort of all-works-out-in-the-end tone that negated any truly emotional response to the events. People want to feel the hurt sometimes.  Occasionally, you just need to devastate your audience–really knock them on their asses–and then mike-drop until next week.  For examples, see anything Joss Whedon has ever done.

Add that it was all seen through the eyes of unconnected parties (the nurses and nuns).  Witnessing someone else’s joy or tragedy can be an immensely difficult thing, but the writers failed to bring any of that emotion across.  Add the voice-overs from the modern era and we’re too disconnected from the action. I was bored.  Chummy was the only character I wanted to see and be with, week after week.

3-It was a bit unrealistic.  I think this is related to the tone.  It all ended up for the best, even when people died it was with sweet music or a sense of purpose.  It’s painted with too sweet a brush, with the severely-hued glasses of nostalgia.

I return to the Christmas special.  The homeless woman was forced to enter the workhouse (a heinous Victorian invention akin to a debtor’s prison. You worked for most of your life, only in exchange for food and rent; you gave up any claim to property or family.  Children were separated from parents, wives from husbands.  It was glorified slavery, all done with some sort of nod to a Christian charity ideal. A truly awful place.  For more info, see the works of Dickens).  Her 5 or 6 children all died in the workhouse, but she never got to see them or mourn them.  Nurse Lee and the nuns clean her up, get her to the doctor, and then take her to her children’s graves.  It’s a nice gesture, and she certainly looks better.  And despite having a tragic and terrible life with enough horrible events to send anyone around the bend, she’s magically salient and coherent and capable again? She’s cured by their help?  As if a bath and a new sweater can change what happened to her?

For anyone who has experienced life, we know that that is utter bullshit.

I frankly cannot understand why this show was such a big hit.  I imagine it has a lot to do with nostalgia.  Older people like to remember a time when things were simpler and think it was all roses and sunshine. Parents like to remember when their children were born. Maybe it’s easy to look back and think things were better when we were younger.  They weren’t.  We were just more naive.

The L.A. Times called it “unapologetically sentimental”, and I can’t help but agree.  Except for me that is not a compliment.

Add to my genuine dislike of the show itself, it features a lot of truly nauseating footage of deliveries that seem WAY too realistic.  I am a woman, but I want nothing to do with seeing this stuff.  There are a lot of reasons I don’t want kids, and this show gave me a few extra reasons.  One example that was particularly horrifying was when a baby is born breech and the mom-to-be has to stop pushing and let the baby hang out of her vagina for about a minute, with its head still inside.  WHAT?  No. No. No.

Judging by reviews and ratings, I’m in the minority in not liking this show.  But, I’m in the minority for not liking babies.  Coincidence?

Regardless, I won’t be tuning in for the next season.