Booktrotting in China: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

Crossing the border north of the Korean peninsula, my Booktrotting journey now comes to China, where short story writer Yiyun Li probes the long and complex history of a modern world power.

Then we have a short decade of republic, the warlords, two world wars, in both of which we fought on the winning side yet winning nothing, the civil war, and finally we see the dawn of communism. The day the dictator claims the communist victory in our country, a young carpenter in our town comes home to his newly wedded wife.

The People’s Republic of China—one of the largest countries in the world, with a population of over 1.3 billion and measuring almost 10 million square kilometres in land area. Its borders contain 56 officially recognised ethnic groups speaking almost 300 languages; its history sprawls back millennia, growing from early civilisations in the cradle of the Yellow River to today’s modern power, via periods of dynastic and imperial rule, presidential republics, communist regimes and controversial annexations.

As you can imagine, any attempt to explore the society and history of such a country through fiction could have a thousand starting points. The focus of a historical novel was obviously one option (Japanese occupation in Empire of the Sun, for example, or Mao’s Cultural Revolution in Wolf Totem), though something set closer to the present like Wild Swans or Do Not Say We Have Nothing would have been equally fitting. I even considered splitting China into two Booktrotting posts, pairing one contemporary novel with one of the country’s Four Great Classical Novels.

In the end, however, I chose to explore China through A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, the debut short story collection by Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li. I’d not heard of Li before researching for this project, but (as I said in my last entry for Krys Lee’s Drifting House collection) I’m a huge fan of short stories—especially in this context, when the nine or ten different narratives become an opportunity to explore a variety of aspects of society, rather than focusing on just the one as most novels do.

Shanghai skyline, dawvon / CC-BY-2.0

Initially, I wasn’t expecting Good Prayers to impart much about China’s past. For starters, it’s only a mere 203 pages long—even if each story was inspired by a different event in Chinese history, there would inevitably be far more left out than included.

And secondly, each of Li’s stories take place in modern-day China rather than the past. Her characters visit Starbucks’ and stockbrokers; they escape into Internet chat rooms, and work in nuclear research facilities. There are no adventure tales of feudal warlords, no Mongol hordes or Japanese invasions.

Instead, Li’s stories follow ordinary, everyday Chinese: a young woman with an unwanted pregnancy, a schoolteacher dreaming of America, two parents overwhelmed by their daughter’s cerebral palsy. Her subjects are human affairs and interpersonal relationships, not the grand socio-historical narrative of China itself.

Erhai Lake, Yunnan, Ariel Steiner / CC-BY-SA-3.0

However, what really struck me when I read Good Prayers was just how much of China’s complex history Li was able to include and convey in her ten short stories.

She opens with the Asian Financial Crisis, unemployment and the one-child policy in ‘Extra’ and ‘After a Life’. ‘The Princess of Nebraska’ addresses the Cultural Revolution in Inner Mongolia; in ‘Immortality’ she links Mao with China’s former emperors in a tale of personality cultism. Rural traditions and out-of-touch superstitions also come into focus in ‘Persimmons’ and the closing title story, whilst in ‘Son’, Li introduces American capitalism to a bemused communist generation.

Of course, Li’s stories aren’t a perfect lesson on the history of China—Good Prayers is fiction, after all, not a textbook. But that doesn’t take away from what this book does so well, which is to give a kind of crash course not just in what it might be like to live on the ground in modern-day China, but also the context in which such a life exists.

Shigatse Dzong, Tibet, Antoine Taveneaux / CC-BY-SA-4.0

But what I noticed whilst reading was that, even with such a solid historical grounding, Li somehow manages to avoid using events like the Financial Crisis as the central themes of her stories. It would be wrong to say Good Prayers is about people living through and dealing with China’s landmark episodes; rather, its stories are about people whose lives have been inevitably affected by the country’s past, but remain separate from it—the same way we can be affected by Brexit, for example, without necessarily becoming defined by it.

Whether that’s a particular quirk of Li’s or something that’s characteristic of Chinese writing in general, I’d like to find out—the absence of the past tense in the Chinese language makes me wonder if it’s the latter. Fortunately, there is a lot of great Chinese literature out there for me to try next (like those other novels listed up above), and I’m looking forward to delving further into China’s past and present.

For my next Booktrotting stop I’ll be heading south across the Himalayas to India, where Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance tells the violent story of the 1975 Emergency.


Booktrotting in Korea: Drifting House

From the mountain springs of Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country and across the Sea of Japan, my Booktrotting journey returns to mainland Asia via the Korean peninsula, with Krys Lee and her short story collection Drifting House.

The day the siblings left to find their mother, snow devoured the northern mining town. Houses loomed like ghosts. The government’s face was everywhere: on the sides of a marooned cart, above the lintel of the gray post office, on placards scattered throughout the surrounding mountains praising the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. And in the grain sack strapped to the oldest brother Woncheol’s back, their crippled sister, the weight of a few books.

Earlier in the year I read Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a grim collection of short stories that read like a blacklight shone on the murkier fringes of American society. The book wasn’t entirely to my taste as a reader, but I did think once finished that its focus on race, gender, age and class in the States would have made it perfect for when this Booktrotting tour eventually reaches the USA.

It was a good sign, then, that when I started reading Drifting House—Krys Lee’s debut story collection about modern life on the Korean peninsula—I was immediately reminded of Everything Ravaged. Like Wells Tower, Lee takes a country known for its soaring economy and progressive society, and opts to show none of that; instead, her stories turn to families blasted by domestic violence, women in the grip of oppressive husbands, the laid-off living rough at the foot of luxury high rises. She visits America too, where once well-off immigrants from Seoul are pressed into cramped Koreatown apartments, and even takes one story across the Demilitarised Zone to follow two North Korean brothers desperately seeking refuge in China.

Seoul by night, Philippe Teuwen / CC BY-SA 2.0

As you can imagine, that doesn’t exactly make Drifting House the gentlest of reads. For only nine stories and 210 pages, Lee creates an awful lot of truly unsettling scenes—one particular standout for me was in the very first story, ‘A Temporary Marriage’, in which a browbeaten divorcee tracking down her abusive ex-husband in Los Angeles braces herself expectantly for a beating when she angers the man with whom she is staying.

But as awful as the actual events of these episodes are, it’s Lee’s writing (in the best possible way) that really drives home the discomfort. Compared with Wells Tower, whose gritty style often balloons into pure shock value, Lee never appears to revel in what her characters do; instead, she narrates their actions almost matter-of-factly, as if torn somewhere on the line between abhorrence and sympathy. She suggests that her characters aren’t inherently bullies, thieves and murderers, but are gradually made more capable of committing vile acts by the harshness of what surrounds them: in the final story, ‘Beautiful Women’, Lee writes “here, boys blow up a frog to see how many pieces are created. There is a camaraderie in robbing small shops at knife-point. Men beat up their wives, their wives beat their children, the children beat their friends.” With the lengths to which Lee goes to understand her characters’ motivations, even their vilest actions are made somehow human—and all the more frightening for that.

View from Busan Tower, Iwy / CC-BY-2.0

I can’t say I was that surprised to find conflict forming such a key theme in Drifting House. From what I already knew of Korea’s history (chiefly the Korean war of the 1950s and the peninsula’s prior occupation by Imperial Japan) I was expecting some elements of that violent past to still be present in Lee’s stories—much like how the many guerrilla and revolutionary wars of Latin America weighed heavily on my Booktrotting reads there.

But what did surprise me was how much of Drifting House‘s conflicts centred around personal issues, such as family relationships and in particular the treatment of women in Korean society.

Historically, thanks in large part to the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius, the lives of Korean women centred around little more than domesticity. Access to formal education was rare and basic legal rights sparse, and for the most part young Korean girls were raised with deference and subordination to their future husbands in mind. Officially, that all changed after the Second World War, when South Korea’s 1948 constitution ruled all citizens equal before the law and free from discrimination; since the late 1980s especially the south’s government has been pushing to address gender inequality, starting with a series of employment and welfare acts designed to level the legal standing between men and women.

But according to Krys Lee and Drifting House, whilst Korean women may have legislative equality, their social status is still very much dictated by patriarchal traditions. The female characters in Lee’s stories are often educated, working, even wealthy, but none of that counts for them when it comes to demands to obey their fathers and husbands, or keep a respectable house. And when those demands aren’t met, all too often the response is force and intimidation; the result, unhappiness and pain.

Koreatown, NYC, Ingfbruno / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Up next, my Booktrotting tour will cross the North Korean border into China, and join Yiyun Li’s short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.

Booktrotting in Japan: Snow Country

After beginning the Asian leg of my Booktrotting tour with Tan Twan Eng in Malaysia, I now move on to Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata and his novel Snow Country, a tale of unfulfilled love on the slopes of the Japanese Alps.

It was a stern night landscape. The sound of the freezing of snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth. As the stars came nearer, the sky retreated deeper and deeper into the night colour. The layers of the Border Range, indistinguishable one from another, cast their heaviness at the skirt of the starry sky in a blackness grave and somber enough to communicate their mass.

Numbed by the idleness of his comfortable city life, wealthy Tokyo socialite Shimamura boards a train to Yuzawa, an isolated mountain resort in Japan’s eastern snow country, on a journey he hopes will restore some meaning to his empty emotions.

He is drawn there by Komako, a geisha he met on a previous trip and one with whom he believes he is in love. The two know that their affair cannot last beyond Shimamura’s stay in Yuzawa: he has a wife and family to return to in Tokyo, whilst Komako’s work binds her to the resort. And yet in that very impermanence they find the freedom to give themselves to each other—even though their awareness of what cannot be becomes a pain that haunts their time together.

View from the Kasumi Room, Yuzawa, Daderot / CC0 1.0

At first it felt a little out of place, reading a book entitled Snow Country in the middle of a May heatwave. But the more I read, the more fitting it seemed.

After all, there is little about Snow Country that isn’t a contradiction in one way or another. It is set in a snowbound town, the main attraction of which is the warmth of its hot springs; it is described as both a work of great beauty and also of waste and desolation; its plot revolves around a love affair made all the more keen by the fact it cannot last.

Another contradiction is that, for a novel with such a complex emotional undercurrent, it’s also incredibly short. Given how Kawabata builds the story around the inner development of his characters, you might expect Snow Country to be a book pushing at its binding with questions, internal monologues, maybe even some stream-of-consciousness narration—and yet instead, it’s capped off at a succinct 175 pages. The dialogue is sparing and the descriptions rarely linger; even the characters themselves are pared down, with Shimamura and Komako often referred to simply as “the man” and “the woman” respectively.

It’s a novel that feels as though it’s had every word weighed and measured until only the most essential are allowed to remain, using a “less is more” philosophy that draws clarity from economy. Its suggestive subtlety is often compared to haiku; the Times Literary Supplement described Kawabata as “using the same delicate, glancing technique [to probe] a complicated human relationship”. (In fact, in 1972 Kawabata reduced Snow Country yet further, reworking the novel into an eleven-page abbreviation titled Gleanings from Snow Country.)

Matsumoto Castle, 663highland / CC-BY-2.5

When reading, I did wonder if the effect of Kawabata’s “light touch” writing style was in part a consequence of his translation into English. It’s inevitable that when a story is taken out of its native tongue its rhythm and lucidity will be somewhat coloured by the process, but the disparity varies from language to language; German, for example, shares very similar roots with English, and so less is lost when translating between the two.

Japanese, however, is vastly different to English—not just in terms of the characters used to write it, but also grammatically and phonetically. Check out any list article of “untranslatable Japanese words” and you can get an idea of the difficulties of producing a faithful English version of a Japanese novel, especially one like Snow Country that explores the subtleties of love, loneliness and desire. And so with Kawabata already well-known for his “brushstroke suggestiveness”, it’s hardly surprising that any English translation of his work will be even more spartan again by virtue of what’s lost in conversion.

But while that sounds like it might be frustrating, or even make Snow Country difficult to follow, that’s actually one of the things I really love about reading fiction in translation. Because although it’s true that the lack of overlap between English and Japanese can at times leave Kawabata’s writing seeming vague and stilted, I feel it’s precisely those “gaps” in the translation that allow his elegance to shine through. It’s as if by reading Snow Country in a language so jarringly different to the original, the brain tries to compensate by looking for the rhythm that should be there, the way each sentence should read—much like how when you listen to a good song on a crappy stereo, your brain will instinctively “fill in” the missing frequencies so you don’t hear it sounding as tinny as it really is. It’s a phenomenon I’ve mostly seen before with Finnish writers like Emmi Itäranta, and also with The Garden of Evening Mists on my last Booktrotting stop, and I’m eager to delve further into Japanese literature to see if that’s systemic to the language rather than just Kawabata’s style.

Tsurunoyu Onsen, Fumiaki Yoshimatsu / CC-BY-SA 2.0

The next stage of my Booktrotting journey takes me eastwards across the Sea of Japan to South Korea, where my guide will be Drifting House, Krys Lee’s short story take on the the Korean-American relationship.

Booktrotting in Malaysia: The Garden of Evening Mists

After a brief tour of Oceania, my Booktrotting tour now begins its Asian leg, with a window on post-war Malaysia in Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists.

It was Sunday, and the tea-fields were deserted. In the valleys, the points of light from the farmhouses were as faint as stars behind a weave of clouds. The moon was retreating behind the mountains, the same moon I had seen at almost every dawn in the camp. So long after my imprisonment, there were still moments when I found it difficult to believe that the war was over, that I had survived.

It is 1951, and Malaya is beginning to undo the damage wrought by its brutal Second World War occupation by Imperial Japan. Its people are recovering too, and for Teoh Yun Ling, a former detainee in a Japanese internment camp, that means constructing a memorial garden for her sister, who perished where Yun Ling survived.

Her endeavours lead her to the mist-bound slopes of Malaya’s mountain highlands, and to the door of Nakamura Aritomo: once the chief gardener to Emperor Hirohito himself, now living in exile in the land his own people ravaged. Under Aritomo’s guidance, Yun Ling learns how to bring to life the garden her sister always dreamt of—and all the while comes to terms with the horrors of her past.

Bharat Tea Plantation, Bjørn Christian Tørrissen / CC-BY-SA-3.0

When I started my Booktrotting project, The Garden of Evening Mists was exactly the kind of novel I hoped I would encounter. As a story it’s spellbinding, a rich weave of complex characters and emotions that unfolds delicately through Yun Ling’s pain-driven narrative; and, spanning as it does some of the most seismic events in the region’s recent past, I could hardly have asked for a better grounding in the historical foundations of modern Malaysia.

Although the events of this novel are huge in scale (covering not only the Pacific War but also the communist guerrilla “Emergency” that followed) its thematic focus is relatively small. Tan treats the sweep of Malaya’s military struggles as more of a backdrop than the cornerstone of his plot, training his focus instead on the ground-level story of Yun Ling—on the raw grief of her sister’s death, her hatred of the Japanese, and the thorny duality of her relationship with Aritomo.

In that sense, The Garden of Evening Mists is very reminiscent of Evelio Rosero’s The Armies. As Rosero used his narrator’s agony at the loss of his wife to reflect the wider damage wrought on Colombia by its conflict, so too does Tan Twan Eng seem to be speaking in terms much larger than an individual character when it comes to the enduring effects Yun Ling’s internment had upon her.

Penang, Tys / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Throughout The Garden of Evening Mists many characters remark on Yun Ling’s understandable anger towards her captors, and how her inability to move beyond that stage of grief is not only preventing her emotional wounds from healing, but is also causing her more pain the longer she dwells on it. Indeed, at the beginning of the story Tan reveals that this has already cost Yun Ling her job: as a state prosecutor, she was fired after publicly criticising the colonial British government for acting too leniently towards Japanese war criminals.

But the irony here is that Yun Ling is doomed to leave her past behind, whether she wants to or not—she suffers from aphasia, a brain condition robbing her of her memories. The other characters who urge her to let go are entirely unaware that the reason Yun Ling clings so fiercely to her past, and especially to its most traumatising scenes, is that the resulting pain is the only thing sharp enough to keep her from losing such an integral part of herself.

In an interview with, Tan described Malaysia as “very forgiving—or forgetful” when it comes to the legacy of the Japanese Occupation; he added that following the release of his debut novel The Gift of Rain, set in wartime Penang, many Malaysian readers said that they had been unaware of story’s historical events prior to reading it.

(In an interesting side-note, Tan also advocates the educational preservation of Malaysia’s historic and colonial-era buildings, which he feels are too readily discarded to make space for modern developments like the iconic Petronas Towers.)

It’s not hard, then, to imagine that The Garden of Evening Mists was written in response to this. Through Yun Ling and the characters surrounding her, Tan calls for a balance between the pain of remembrance and the dangers of being all too hasty to forget; a balance that allows Malaysia to look to its future without disregarding the lessons of its past. For whilst the horrors of the Japanese Occupation are inevitably hard to hold on to, the alternative—losing those memories forever—would be far, far worse.

Petronas Towers, McKay Savage / CC-BY-2.0

The next stop on my journey takes me northwards to Japan itself, and the setting of Snow Country by 1968 Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata.

Booktrotting Log: Oceania

Another continent, another stage of my Booktrotting journey completed. Compared with the previous leg in Latin America, this literary trip across the island nations of Oceania has felt all too brief, having only three stops along the way—and yet those stops could hardly have been more diverse, beginning in self-imposed exile on Kiribati, moving through to New Zealand’s 19th century gold rush, and ending with a twisted coming-of-age story on the Australian coast.

Carte de L’Océanie, J.G. Barbie du Bocage, 1852

I always knew I would struggle to find a wide spread of literature from this part of the world, and so all things considered I’m glad I managed to read what I did. But of course, it’s not all about quantity: what’s more important is how well the few books I did choose fit with my Booktrotting goal of filling in some of those blank edges on my world map.

I mentioned before how J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals was an especially good find in this regard, given how comprehensive his account was of Kiribati’s history, geography and social minutiae, and how Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries likewise introduced me to an entire period of New Zealand’s past about which I previously knew nothing.

Even Tim Winton’s Breath, which I didn’t much enjoy as a novel, was immense fun to explore as a window onto Australian adolescence and its relationship with masculinity.

Maris Pacifici, Abraham Ortelius, 1589

Fortunately, even with a smaller set of books to work from, it was still easy to notice several common themes emerging as I read my way across Oceania, just as it was in Latin America.

One of the first themes I noticed (largely because of its striking contrast to the violence encountered from Jamaica through to Argentina) was openness. Whether it was Troost in Kiribati, Walter Moody in New Zealand or Pikelet’s Kent-born family in Australia, the narrators of each of these novels were by strange coincidence connected by their origins overseas, and by the way that seemingly didn’t matter beyond providing a little backstory. Perhaps I’m just looking at this with a little too much zeitgeist, but I couldn’t help wondering that if these books were written by British authors, how many pages would be dedicated to the simple fact that the characters came from Somewhere Else?

It’s interesting to consider the role Oceania’s geography might play in this. In the British Isles, spurning the company of strangers is something of a luxury, packed in as tight as we are to our neighbours both domestic and across the Channel.

But in the countries of Oceania—especially in the vast, open spaces of Australia—that same luxury doesn’t really exist. I’d always heard friends and family in Australia and New Zealand say that it’s a much friendlier world down in the South Pacific, but I’d never thought until now how that might stem from a sense of international loneliness, cut off from the rest of the world as these countries are by the bounds of the Indian and Pacific Oceans—alone, if you will, at what once really was the edge of the world.

Australasia, John Pinkerton, 1818

From Australia my Booktrotting journey now heads across the South China Sea to continue on through Asia, working from Malaysia in the east around to Turkey in the west. But although I’m moving on from Oceania, I am determined to discover more authors and books from this region, starting with Australia’s Kate Grenville and Miles Franklin, as well as Eleanor Catton’s much-lauded first novel The Rehearsal.

Booktrotting in Australia: Breath

After departing 19th century New Zealand, my Booktrotting tour comes to the final stop on its Oceania leg, Australia—more specifically, the southwest coast of Tim Winton’s Breath.

Rising sharply from the seabed the shoal at Old Smoky was like a sunken building, windows open, teeming with blue morwongs, harlequins and boarfish. In the water column above, schools of buffalo bream churned restless circles; in the mouths of caves were lobsters the size of cattle dogs.

In a small mill town on the Australian west coast, eleven-year-old Bruce Pike grows up exhausted by the stillness of his surroundings. Together with town wild boy Loonie, he is drawn out to the booming ocean on his doorstep, and falls under the spell of the power of the waves and the mythical knot of men who surf them. Soon the boys have boards of their own—and spurred on by their own young courage and the awe of their peers, Pikelet and Loonie enter into an intoxicating world of exhilaration, immortality and fear.

I changed my mind a lot when looking for an Australian Booktrotting read; pretty much everywhere I looked turned up something that caught my eye, from The Secret River and The Narrow Road to the Deep North to anything by Miles Franklin.

But when I found Tim Winton’s “love letter to the sea” Breath, I settled on it straight away. Granted, my own stretch of the Somerset coast is a far cry from the bluffs and bomboras of Western Australia, but nevertheless I, like young Pikelet, have grown up beside and in reverence of the ocean, and I always love authors who can put that feeling into better words than I’ve ever managed. Add in Pike’s small town upbringing and love of literature, and I thought he would be a character that was achingly familiar, despite our being separated by some 9,000 miles.

Surfers at Paradise Beach, Queensland, P.J. Robertson / CC-BY-SA-2.0
And yet, in spite of the many similarities, I struggled to find much relation with Pike’s story. Obviously surfing is a major part of Breath, and, although Winton keeps the jargon to an understandable minimum, there were plenty of times when I felt too far removed from Pike’s experiences to really engage with them. In particular, Winton’s depictions of the act of surfing itself (“the huge body-rush we got flying down the line with the wind in our ears”) often lost clarity amidst the breathless adrenaline of the moment.

(I did however find an affinity with Pikelet when he confessed he could get no more than a few chapters into Moby Dick—I wondered if he, like I, had fallen for Melville’s opening poetry about the allure of the ocean, only to be turned off by all the whaling gore and narrative tangents that followed.)

Coolum Beach, Queensland, Vanderven / CC-BY-SA-2.5
But to treat Breath as just a surfing novel would be to ignore its greatest attribute. This is, above all, a coming-of-age story, a terrific (and no doubt autobiographical) snapshot of life on the cusp of manhood in 1970s Australia. It’s as much about the ocean as it is about family, masculinity, and finding one’s place in the world.

The surfing is just an extension of that. Thanks to the likes of Home and Away, it’s easy for us in Britain to see surfing as nothing more than an Aussie cliché—but to Loonie and Pikelet, under the tutelage of their hippy mentor Sando, it’s a rite of passage, their personal bridge from innocence to adulthood.

To Pike, his time on the waves is also a means of vital self-expression. During his first encounters with Sando and the other surfers, he is enthralled by the elegance of what they can do, by “how strange it was to see men do something beautiful,” and later notes how his own style of surfing has a grace and finesse that Loonie’s blind bravado lacks. He regards surfing as a kind of physical poetry, something “pointless and beautiful” that exists beyond the ideas of masculinity his traditional, agricultural hometown has to offer. It seems strange to say, given surfing’s modern day image, but for Bruce Pike—and perhaps for Tim Winton too—taking on the ocean was not about the death-defying thrill, but about finding his own interpretation of what it is to be a man.

The Twelve Apostles, Victoria, Richard Mikalsen / CC-BY-SA-3.0
From Australia my Booktrotting tour now leaves Oceania behind and begins its third leg, in Asia—beginning with The Garden of Evening Mists by Malaysia’s Tan Twan Eng.

Booktrotting in New Zealand: The Luminaries

Continuing on from the remote Republic of Kiribati, my South Pacific journey has taken a turn back in time to the New Zealand gold rush of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

He found that he was disappointed: the West Coast Times read like a parish gazette. But what had he expected? That a goldfield would be an exotic phantasm, made of glitter and promise? That the diggers would be notorious and sly—every man a murderer, every man a thief?

In 1866, Scotsman Walter Moody lands in New Zealand, ready to make his fortune on the South Island goldfields. But when he arrives in the middle of the night, he stumbles instead across a secret meeting of twelve local men, and is drawn into their confidence as they discuss a series of unsolved mysteries—the disappearance of a wealthy man, the attempted suicide of a whore, and a fortune found in a dead man’s home.

It was easy for me to empathise with Moody. Not knowing anything about The Luminaries beforehand, I was as adrift as he was upon entering Eleanor Catton’s world and finding what felt like a play I was seeing from the interval onwards. The incidents described in the blurb had already taken place, their consequences were already underway, and around me were a dozen characters whose roles in the story were already established, and who were now obliged to fill Moody and myself in on everything we’d missed.

But if that sounds confusing or tedious, it was far from it—Eleanor Catton is much too masterful a storyteller for that. Hers is a plot built with finesse, its revelations deployed with the exactitude of one who knows just when to illuminate and when to remain cryptic. As the truth unfurls it does so seductively—helped along in no small way by Catton’s charming pastiche of the Victorian theatric, blending sex, murder and buried treasure behind a fog of opium smoke. If you enjoy getting lost in the likes of Anna Karenina or The Count of Monte Cristo, then this is definitely the book for you.

Hokitika River and Hokitika Gorge, Pseudopanax / Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Luckily I loved both of those novels, and so The Luminaries was a perfect fit for my reading taste. But when I was first planning my Booktrotting itinerary, I was reluctant to include it as my New Zealand stop; for one reason or another, I thought my literary world tour would be better served by a setting more contemporary than 1866.

But on the other hand, I was also drawn irresistibly to the backdrop of the West Coast Gold Rush. For all my knowledge of New Zealand’s vineyards and film locations, I know next to nothing about the country’s past, and had no idea it had even had a gold rush—I’d always thought prospectors were exclusive to the American west.

And so with a history lesson in mind, I could hardly have asked any more of The Luminaries. Its plot may be intentionally fanciful to the extreme, but the framework beneath is rife with historical detail: from characters’ names and clothes, to the hierarchy of township society, even to the fine print of shipping insurance, the meticulousness of Catton’s research deserves at least as much praise as the novel itself. She doesn’t so much construct the 19th century West Coast as resurrect it; so tangibly authentic is her depiction of Hokitika’s streets that they feel like a period drama set just waiting for the crew to start filming (which, incidentally, shouldn’t be long now).

Hokitika Township ca 1870s, James Ring / National Library of New Zealand (public domain)

But of all the elements of historical accuracy, the one Catton captures best is the diversity found at what was, in 1866, the effective end of the world.

To call her ensemble cast of characters “diverse” wouldn’t quite do it justice—”motley” would probably come closer. In the first scene alone, Scottish-born Moody rubs shoulders not just with émigrés from his own British Isles, but also from Norway, France, Germany and China; there’s surely no irony lost in the character of Te Rau Tauwhare, the only native Maori presence in The Luminaries‘ 832 pages.

Catton uses this kaleidoscope of different perspectives to paint Hokitika in the abstract, as something exotic, elusive and ever-changing, a scene distorted by the expectations of it. Depending on the character, New Zealand means riches, revenge, adventure, anonymity: to some it is the start of a new life, to others it’s just a different place to die.

The paths that lead these characters across the Pacific sound veritably swashbuckling when read together. But I can’t help wondering if that is in fact the point; if, in borrowing from the playbook of the penny dreadful, Catton is also poking fun at our romantic, “greener grass” view of life in this far corner of the world. It’s certainly not hard to see how the modern attraction of New Zealand has grown in part from its goldfield past, and from the tales of glory and wild wonder that would have reached Britain from the West Coast in 1866.

But that being said, it’s clear Catton isn’t trying to debunk New Zealand’s reputation as an idyllic escape—The Luminaries merely presents a tickled new perspective on where that might have originated. And of course, even if our impression of the country has been inflated somewhat by the lens of time and distance, there’s no denying that there is some truth to New Zealand’s allure. It is, after all, still a truly breathtaking country…

Lake Matheson, Mrogex / CC-BY-SA

Next up is the final stop on my Oceania leg—Australia, for which my guide will be Tim Winton’s story of surfing and boyhood, Breath.