Saturday, 16 June 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton (2013)

The Luminaries is the kind of novel that makes people uncomfortable (and not just due to its sheer size!). It pushes readers, rather than spoon-feeding them. It breaks many of the rules adhered to by aspiring writers (there are by some counts 19 protagonists—try selling that one to your creative writing professors). And, above all else, it plays with our love of logic—the reasoning and deduction that appeals to fans of mystery and detective fiction—while threatening this with a structure based on the astrological and a conclusion leaning towards the mystical.

Many of the negative reviews of the novel which you can find on Goodreads and Amazon (which aren’t nearly as numerous as those glowing with praise for this Man Booker winner) sound closer to break up letters. Reviewers tell the book they’re not sure if “it’s you or me”. They’re worried that they’ve failed a test, that they’re not the readers they thought they were, that they’ve missed the point.

Eleanor Catton (1985-)
But, as with most novels, The Luminaries, while a monumental achievement, has strengths and weaknesses. Whether you’ll enjoy the novel as much as I did depends on the value you ascribe to each area:

Many of us read historical fiction to be transported to a different place and time and Catton has a wonderful setting in 1860s Hokitika in New Zealand. There are many tropes of the nineteenth-century doorstopper here, in a novel more complex than Dickens’s Bleak House and with multiple narrators as in Collins’s The Woman in White, but the unique setting opens up new possibilities for a cast of gold-diggers, prospectors, politicians, prostitutes, all trying to make it in a new world, greater diversity, with Maori and Chinese characters as well as British transplants, and a spectacular natural backdrop to a very human drama.

Catton is a master of plotting. I’d give anything to see her outline document! If you love to puzzle out novels, obsess over the course of events in the podcast Serial, even draw out your own timelines to keep events straight, this novel might be for you. If not, it won’t be. This novel doesn’t go easy on the casual reader. Skim one sentence and you might miss something. Revelations aren’t repeated or greeted with fanfare.

Pacing and Structure
The structure of The Luminaries is one of its most distinctive features, with parts decreasing in length as the novel progresses to mirror the waning of the moon. The characters act and interact in accordance with the star signs and other astrological bodies they represent, with the star charts preceding each section bringing another dimension to the reading experience. This is all very interesting but the victim of this grand design is the novel’s pacing. The first section is overly long and it takes too much time for any pieces to fall together. The language and the promise of the magic to come was what kept me reading but I can understand why some might have lost their patience. Once the pace picks up so did my reading. It probably took me half the time to read the final 600 pages, than the first 300.

This was one of the most puzzling aspects of the novel for me. The astrological framework provides a distinct basis for each of Catton’s characters and yet they often didn’t feel differentiated enough. Bizarrely, I got more of a sense of personality when we weren’t in that character’s point of view, making me wonder if the omniscient narrative intrusions were keeping us at a distance from those whose heads we were meant to be in. In Victorian style, characters’ traits are described but I rarely saw them acted out in a memorable way. If your favourite thing about fiction is rooting for a hero or heroine you won’t find that here, but it wasn’t the lack of sympathetic protagonist that bothered me—rather the characters felt more like pieces on a chessboard than fully realised human beings.

The Luminaries is beautifully written. Long as the novel was I found myself rereading stellar sentences and pausing to marvel at Catton’s turns of phrase. The voice is simultaneously an homage to nineteenth-century fiction and fresh, bringing something new to our bookshelves. We often hear the maxim that literary fiction is character-driven, but The Luminaries proves the power of plot-driven literary writing.

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Best and Worst Tropes in Historical Fiction

As part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series I’ve been reading a fair few novels set in the nineteenth century but written in the twenty-first. And in the process I’ve formed a lot of opinions about the tropes I love and those I don’t love as much when it comes to the historical novel.

Today it’s time to share my highly subjective list:

1. The protagonist ahead of her time 
This one’s a no from me. This character is prone to crying, “why can’t women vote?” She abandons her corset, making sure the reader knows she sees it as a sign of oppression. And she feels the wrongs of the world around her very keenly—is concerned about child labour, slavery, the plight of the poor.

Of course there were suffragettes and abolitionists in the nineteenth-century—many of whom would make wonderful characters in a novel. What I object to, and what makes this character so insufferable, is that she’s always on the right side of history and that her views are always too neatly aligned with contemporary norms. Writers, take note—give us nuance and characters that challenge as well as mirror our current values.

2. The dual narrative
This one’s controversial but I’ve rarely read a novel that switches between a modern and historical storyline where both halves are equally engaging and exciting. All too often the contemporary protagonist serves only to model the desired reader response to the imbed narrative, or as a near constant reminder that the older story is in the past, distancing us emotionally from the novel.

I read historical fiction to be immersed in a time period that’s not my own. If you really want to give some modern context consider a framing device instead.

3. Faceless servants
Servants, with some notable exceptions, get little page time in Victorian novels but that doesn’t mean that twenty-first-century novels need to follow this form. There’s so much drama to be had from the close proximity that servants and masters lived in—it’s a waste to write yet another faceless or stereotyped maid.

4. The marriage plot (with sex)
Now onto the tropes I love. One of the reasons we still read Austen, Gaskell and the Brontes is because of the perennial appeal of the marriage plot. And guess what? In neo-Victorian novels we don’t just have haughty heroes, dramatic proposals, unexpected elopements. We have all that plus sex scenes.

Historical fiction gives us the chance to learn the stories that were never told before—of nineteenth-century lesbian lovers, of the porn industry in the early days of photography. And, since works from the period are out of copyright, we can essentially enjoy steamy fan fiction in published form.

5. Literary cameos
Most writers of historical fiction are in dialogue with writers from the period they’re depicting and sometimes these literary icons turn up in character form.

This one’s a winning formula for me. Who doesn’t want to go back in time and meet Jane Austen? Or get to know Stephen Crane?

6. Genre mash ups
The novel was still young in the nineteenth-century. But today there is a host of developed genres with popular followings and tropes of their own. So bring on the historical novels with fantasy and sci-fi elements—clockwork octopuses, magical circus tents and all.

Do you agree with my list? I’d love to know what tropes you love (and hate to see) in historical novels. Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The Secret Victorianist in 2018

It’s been a quiet few months on the Secret Victorianist blog, but a busy few months for the Secret Victorianist. Not only do I have an exciting new project in the works (more on that to come) but, as usual, I’ve been living my best nineteenth-century life, all while navigating a twenty-first century existence in New York.

Below is a snapshot of what I’ve been up to:
I watched…

The Eifman Ballet
Anna Karenina in ballet form:
This April the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg returned to New York with this moving dance adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel. The cast is pared back and the story simplified to put Anna’s love life at its centre, and the choreography mixes the classical with the more avant-garde. Anna and Vronsky writhe on separate beds, struggling with their feelings for each other, a toy train circles our protagonist who appears trapped in a giant snow globe, the power and momentum of the lethal train is conveyed by the rhythmic motions of the chorus. The production manages to capture the emotional heart of the novel in a way that transcends cultures, decades and language.

To Walk Invisible (2016):
This BBC TV dramatization covering the years 1845-1848 in the lives of the Bronte siblings, directed by Sally Wainwright, is a treat for academics and fans of the literary family. Much of the script builds on the words of the Brontes and their associates, taken from letters and other written records. Not only is it meticulously researched, but this costume drama comes with grit and a heavy dose of reality. Characters wear the same dress (shock!) more than once, the three female co-leads appear not to be wearing makeup, Branwell’s alcoholism rings true. Shot on location in Haworth, it’s a delight for enthusiasts and a great introduction to the Bronte myth for the uninitiated. If teachers aren’t showing it in schools, they should be.

Film poster for Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth (2016):
This movie adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District is beautifully shot and deliciously dark. The story now unfolds in rural England, where Katherine Lester (played by Florence Pugh) rages against the confines of her loveless marriage and unfulfilling life with ultimately murderous consequences.

I visited…

View towards the Bronte Parsonage Museum
Haworth—home of the Brontes:
After years of reading about the Bronte household and seeing it on film, I finally visited Yorkshire and spent two nights in Haworth, just round the corner from the parsonage itself. I was struck by how small the house felt when you consider how the family lived there as adults, the sheer number of nineteenth-century graves in the graveyard surrounding the house (testament to the poor sanitation and appalling conditions faced by many of the Brontes’ contemporaries) and by how unspoiled the surrounding landscape remains to this day. Enjoying unseasonably fine weather, I hiked across the moors and soaked in what felt like a spiritual homecoming.

I’m reading…

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013):
This Man Booker winning novel is set in New Zealand in 1866 at the height of the country’s booming gold rush. It’s a mammoth achievement, dealing with an intricate mystery. Full review to follow.

So that’s it, folks. I’m back to regularly scheduled programming, so let me know what you would like to see the Secret Victorianist—below, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Transformation, Catherine Chidgey (2005)

Tampa, Florida in 1898. The Tampa Bay Hotel looms over a city that enjoys endless summer, with the occasional hurricane, its minarets gleaming over swamps, orange groves, and displaced Cubans, who save up wages and lottery winnings to help their war-torn homeland.

The Transformation, Catherine Chidgey (2005)
Inside the hotel lives mysterious French wigmaker Lucien Goulet III. Residents and visitors flock to him for memorial jewellery, fashionable fringes, hairpieces to deceive their spouses and repairs to their rocking horses and dolls. And he mocks them all, in his disturbing first person narrative and with the pair of ‘actresses’ who perform for him at night.

Catherine Chidgey pulls off an incredible feat in pulling us into Goulet’s obsession. The novel’s many skeins are united by hair — hair cut off corpses in mausoleums, morgues and graves, hair stolen from lovers as they sleep, hair as the fabric of folktales and myth.

Goulet’s first person sections are interwoven with close third person passages following Rafael, a fifteen-year old cigar maker who enters the perruquier’s employ, and Marion Unger, a lonely widow with rare and entrancing white blonde hair. But it is Goulet who dominates — at once an outsider but also a reflection of this strange world where bodies are very much for sale. Ladies carry alligator handbags and deliver their dead pets to taxidermists, one character plucks out snails to amass a huge collection of their shells, cigars seem more valuable if rolled on Cuban women’s thighs.

Catherine Chidgey (1970- )
The novel’s biggest fault is that, rather than keeping you reading, often Chidgey seems to ask you to pause, to reread paragraphs loaded with such sensual detail they require time to take in. The opening pages, which deal with Marion’s arrival in Tampa and the history of her marriage, are a story in themselves — compelling, tragic, and enthused with the citrus fruits her husband chooses to plant. There’s a richness to the prose and imagery that can be overwhelming. I wanted to savour every line.

Immersed as the reader is in Goulet’s mind, its hard not to wish for a more brutal ending but the conclusion is still a fitting one. There are shades of Pygmalion here, and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, but in a world that’s as alien as it is recognisable.

Do you know any novels set in the nineteenth century and written in the twenty-first that you think the Secret Victorianist should read? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.