Microviews Vol. 39: Apocalypse New Zealand

on Thursday, September 19, 2013
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
After her stunning debut, The Rehearsal, it was clear that Eleanor Catton was destined for big things. What I didn't expect, however, was that she would deliver so bloody literally. The Luminaries is a big book; in size, scope, ambition and enjoyability. I may be wrong, but to my mind it is the first great (did I mention it's huge?) New Zealand western epic. Any attempt to summarise the plot would fail to do it justice. Suffice to say it centres on a cunning gold prospecting scam, murders real and imagined, a decent dash of opium, vengeance and, oddly, astrology. There's also a villain to rival anything Cormac McCarthy has thrown our way, though the extent of his villainy becomes less clear cut as the book progresses. Catton demonstrates a master's ability to control a large and varied cast of characters and plot lines, allowing the many threads to shoot off into the distance before drawing them back together to create a gorgeously complex tapestry. And though I don't have enough of a handle on astrology to really get the allusions, the zodiac wheel is an ingenious device to bring the story full circle and keep you guessing long after you think you've figured it all out. The Luminaries is a rich, rollicking tale that can be enjoyed by casual readers and Litsnobs alike and a very worthy contender for this year's Booker Prize.
4 Out Of 5 Ample Aquarians

Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood
Right now my head and heart are at war. I love Margaret Atwood. Very few writers have managed to be as consistently good, diverse and wildly daring as she. Her post-Apocalyptic trilogy, to which Maddaddam is the conclusion, is a masterwork of invention and execution. The world she has created is incredible (though I did have one minor quibble with the anachronistic use of 'modern' terms). Almost no conceivable aspect is left unrealised. Yet (and it's a big yet!), I just haven't been able to warm to any of the three books. I don't mean to disparage; it's a personal thing. Maddaddam wraps up the story of Oryx, Crake, God's Gardeners and all their associated minions with real gusto. There's a killer cat and mouse chase as the various clans join up to fight a common enemy. There's much greater clarity about what caused the whole "waterless flood". And what Atwood has to say about creation myths (not to mention how she says it) is not only a joy but, in my opinion, the greatest strength of the book. And yet... I wish I could explain it. My head is jumping around, doing backflips, waving pompoms. My heart, on the other hand, is off to grab a beer.
3.5 Out Of 5 Spliced Genes

Life With A Star by Jiri Weil
Jiri Weil is one of the unsung heroes of Czech literature. Those who know his work love him. Indeed, Philip Roth spends three pages raving in his forward to this edition. Life With A Star is one of two Weil books available in English and while the other, Mendelssohn Is On The Roof, is by far the funnier and more accessible, Life With A Star is a powerful novel that stands alongside Mr. Theodore Mundstock as one of the greatest portraits of Czech life under Nazi occupation. Josef Roubicek is a bank clerk, a minor bureaucrat, who finds himself cast aside when his country is annexed. By virtue of a clerical error, he is left off the transports to Terezin and so he spends his days working for the Jewish community, haplessly trying to help those he meets and obsessing over a stray cat. Shifting between moments of spite (Josef prematurely smashes everything in his apartment so the Nazis won't be able to loot it when they deport him), paranoia (he is constantly waiting for the error to be rectified) and hope, Life With A Star is a deeply humane, slightly surreal and unexpectedly funny take on what it's like to live as a non-person.
5 Out Of 5 Iron Tracks

The Counselor by Cormac McCarthy
Not a novel but a screenplay, The Counselor is a small serve of sorbet for those of us anxiously awaiting McCarthy's follow-up to The Road. Thankfully, he has interspersed a good deal of descriptive prose between the dialogue to satiate our cravings but don't get too excited; it will hardly leave you feeling satisfied. The story is pretty straightforward: a lawyer gets caught up in a major drug deal only to find himself way out of his depth. In many ways, The Counselor is reminiscent of No Country For Old Men (which to me read like a script anyway); it's a sassy crime caper with razor sharp dialogue (aside from a few cringeworthy moments), extreme violence and a bunch of morally dubious, thoroughly unlikeable characters. It's and engaging enough read but there's nothing earth shattering to be found. Indeed, you might want to wait for the movie. That's clearly how the great man intended for you to experience it.
3.5 Out Of 5 Drug Mules

Open Heart by Elie Wiesel
Wiesel takes us to the very edge of life again, this time in an entirely different context. Open Heart is a short account of the Nobel laureate's recent brush with a more prosaic death: heart surgery. Needless to say, he has ramped up his sentimentality with age and this has lots of sickly sweet passages about his wife, son, grandkids and friends (he certainly isn't averse to name dropping). The book's true strength, however, lies in its more philosophical moments; as ever Wiesel is reflective and insightful about the big questions - life, death and religion. A minor work, but a lovely read.
3.5 Out Of 5 Scalpels


Evan said...

Nice review of the Luminaries. I'll have to make time for it then. I'm fond of thick 19th century-style novels, but I'm not the speediest of readers, unfortunately - and my TBR pile is daunting as it it without the addition of an 800-page monster...

For another West Coast, NZ read, have you read The Bone People? It divides readers - even in NZ, where it was proclaimed "The Best New Zealand novel EVAR" on its publication. I'm a little ambivalent towards it, myself, but as it won the Booker, it has become sort of the unofficial "NZ book the world must read."

The Bookworm said...

It's worth it and it reads surprisingly quickly.

As for Bone People... That's one of those books I've always been meaning to read but has thus far slipped through the cracks of my bedside table. By all accounts amazing.

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