ElCicco #CBR5 Review #52: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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This long read recently won the Booker Prize and has garnered much praise for its author, 28-year-old New Zealander Eleanor Catton. It’s an ambitious project, and every review I’ve read of it references Catton’s emulation of 19th century novels, a la Charles Dickens. The Luminaries, like a soap opera, involves a large caste of characters and complicated, intersecting story lines. Once you get through the first 400 pages, it starts to come together and gets a little easier to follow. I kept thinking as I was reading that it would make a wonderful mini-series (and would be easier to follow and keep everyone straight).

The novel opens on a dark and stormy night. Really. A weary traveler named Walter Moody stumbles upon a meeting of a dozen unusual men, men who wouldn’t seem to have any common cause. But of course they do, and it’s complicated, with each man telling his piece of the story. In short, it involves the murder of hermit Crosbie Wells, missing person emery Staines, drug-addled whore Anna, gold, and a very bad man with scar on his face. Catton spins her story both backward and forward, and between the dozen men at the meeting plus another half dozen or so important characters, it gets rather hard to manage at times.

One aspect of the novel I found confusing had to do with the gold. The story unfolds in an 1860s gold rush town in New Zealand called Hokitika. Catton has done extensive research on the gold rush and gets her economics and society facts straight, but the plot lines that involve gold — who’s got it, where did it come from and where is it now — read like a literary form of 3-card monte. I suppose it’s intentional, keeping the reader as confused and in the dark as the twelve men trying to find out what happened to the Wells, Staines and Anna. But then there’s the complication of the missing trunks (more than one!) and one character stealing another’s identity to commit financial fraud.

Another aspect of the novel that was lost on me had to do with astrology. The luminaries — sun and moon — refer to two particular characters, and the 12 men each stand for a sign of the zodiac. Each chapter begins with a chart of the zodiac for that particular day and how particular characters interacted with each other on that day. A character named Lydia, who works as both a madam and amateur astrologer, leads seances and reads people’s charts for them. Perhaps this is simply Catton showing popular interest in astrology at that time, but I’m sure there is some deeper, greater significance to all this astrological stuff that I’m just missing.

Still, I was willing to remain bewildered over the economics and astrology thanks to the brilliantly drawn and diverse characters and a story that holds together well if you stick it out to the end. The hookers here do not have hearts of gold, the Chinese miners are abused and not considered worthy of consideration, the pharmacist deals in opium, a politician is being blackmailed, and Walter Moody may or may not have seen a ghost. Striking it rich, forgetting one’s past and exacting revenge seem to be common goals on the frontier, and that makes for good reading.

The end of the novel does not provide the reader with all loose ends tied up neatly in a bow, but it was a satisfying resolution to me. On the whole, I liked the novel quite a lot. It can be a bit of a slog at first, but once you see the connections among the characters and the facts of their pasts slowly work their way forward, it’s an engrossing story.

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loulamac’s #CBRV review #45: Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

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My 2012 Booker shortlist adventure continues, this time in the rambling, incoherent world of opium and heroin addicts in Mumbai. I didn’t have high hopes, as I invariably find that books praised for being hallucinatory or delirium-induced end up being dead pretentious and really hard work to read. Once I’d got through the opening seven pages though, which did not contain one single full stop (sigh), it wasn’t that bad.

The book opens in 1970s Bombay (as it was then), and for the most part tells the story of the hijra Dimple, and Rashid, the owner of an opium den. Dimple, who was castrated at the age of 12, is beautiful and readily passes for a biological women. She is working as a prostitute when she comes to Rashid, bringing with her the ornate antique opium pipes that belonged to her now dead friend, Mr Lee. In return for the pipes, Rashid employs her to prepare them for customers. And so an abiding love affair, friendship and business arrangement is born. The novel drifts in and out of periods and narrators, and so we learn of Mr Lee’s past in communist China, Dimple’s childhood, and some of the band of regulars at Rashid’s establishment. They all come for the opium prepared by Dimple, and as the den’s reputation spreads so does its popularity, drawing customers from all walks of life, including plenty of Westerners on the hippy trail. As time passes, Mumbai changes, and so does the demand for drugs. Despite initial resistance, Rashid begins to sell heroin, and as the city descends into the turmoil of riots and violence, so the lives of Dimple, Rashid and the regulars fall apart.

The book is a bit of a mixed bag, at times hitting great heights. Some passages are annoying and boring, and there is a pointless subplot about murders in the city that never really goes anywhere, but the characters are compelling. There is tragedy in Dimple’s downward trajectory from beauty to ageing heroin addict, and Mr Lee’s story of life in Maoist China is absorbing. With a light touch, Thayil also raises the contradictions of the modern India, with economic boom disguising the rot at the heart of Mumbai. Beggars shit in the street, middle-class boys throw their lives away on heroin, and good Muslim sons have no qualms about dealing cocaine. This is a book that will suck you into a twilight zone of the dreams and nightmares of addiction, if you can get past all that poetic and hallucinatory prose that is : )

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #63: The Master of Rain by Tom Bradby

This debut novel takes place in Shanghai in the 1920s, where a newly-arrived young British cop hopes to start his life over thanks to the sponsorship of his rich and politically connected uncle. Field is just getting used to the atmosphere in Shanghai–hot, corrupt, sordid, and exotic, drastic contrasts of rich and poor, with deadly but exciting currents running just under the surface—when he is assigned by the political unit to which he is attached to keep tabs on a rival police unit involved in criminal investigation. The heads of both units are vying for the post of police commissioner, and Field is an unwitting pawn in the battle. Money begins to accrue mysteriously in Field’s account, but he is not sure who is trying to buy his loyalty.

When Field gets in the middle of a homicide investigation involving the brutal mutilation/murders of several Russian prostitutes under the thumb of a powerful Chinese criminal warlord named Lu, he finds himself falling for one of Lu’s women, Natasha. Like the other women, Natasha had been the privileged child of wealthy white Russians until they were forced to flee the Bolshevik Revolution, and ended up in Shanghai without wealth or protection. Considered homeless refugees, the Russians slipped to the bottom of the Shanghai social order and their daughters fell under Lu’s control to survive. But someone is killing them and Field is determined to solve the mystery and protect Natasha.

Especially fascinating about this novel are the author’s insights into the role of the British colonial elites in carving out a gilded enclave for themselves in the midst of the hunger and poverty, the crime, drugs, filth and tragedy that is the real Shanghai. Our hero Field is bounced back and forth between the uncle and his ilk at their clubs and dinners, their elegant homes and offices, their gorgeous clothing, their perfumed wives, and the underbelly of society represented by Lu and his army of thousands, who among other things finances orphanages so he can have his pick of discardable playthings and who can order murders with the flick of a finger. It is when the idealistic Field discovers that his uncle’s circles are wholly dependent on Lu for their political power, that he becomes the target of both sides.

The action comes thick and fast, and the identity of the killer eludes Field’s—and thus the reader’s—grasp time and again. Field and Natasha have to decide whether to trust each other, Field has to decide who among his fellow cops he can trust, and who among his uncle’s friends he can rely on. Nothing is as it seems, and the good guys and bad change places several times as the story races to a terrifying conclusion.  An exciting, well-written, well-paced and atmospheric  thriller.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #19: Black Venus by James MacManus

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Black Venus is a fictionalized account of the relationship between French poet Charles Baudelaire and Jeanne Duval. Baudelaire is recognized as the greatest poet of the French language whose classic work Les Fleurs du Mal was banned shortly after publication in France in 1857 due to its “obscene” content. Jeanne Duval, an immigrant from Haiti whose mother was a slave and whose father was a French plantation owner, was his lover for 20 years and the inspiration for Baudelaire’s best known work.

As the novel begins, Baudelaire is a 21-year-old “dandy” living off of his mother’s money. Baudelaire wears the latest fashions and haunts the trendy cafes with his friends, accruing debt while expressing disdain for the bourgeoisie and support for revolution. While drinking at a working class dive, he catches cabaret singer Duval’s act and is immediately attracted to her. Duval was tall, shapely, olive-skinned and had long dark hair. She was also quite independent for her time, having escaped Haiti at the age of 14 and making her way to France. A 20-year dysfunctional relationship ensued, involving  alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, debt and an obscenity trial. Baudelaire’s mother and friends blamed Duval for Baudelaire’s downward spiral, but MacManus shows Baudelaire as someone who willingly went down that path. His dark side is evident throughout the novel — vain, selfish, drawn to many vices and unrepentant about it. It is the dark side of man that is the focus of his verse and what set him apart from the romantic poets of his age.

Little is actually known about Jeanne Duval. She did not write, and accounts of her from Baudelaire’s contemporaries are unflattering (she was the whore who supplied him with opium). Duval, as depicted by MacManus, was an independent minded woman restricted by her sex, race and class. She used her talents as a singer, her own intelligence and her looks to support herself and her predilection for fine dining, gowns and jewelry. Baudelaire’s mother offered her money to stay away from him, while his publisher Poulet-Malassis offered her money to get back with him so that he would write again.

The Baudelaire/Duval relationship, as depicted by MacManus, was a train wreck and reminded me of some of the celebrity relationship disasters that you might find in today’s tabloids. They go from lust to hatred and back again. They do drugs and drink to excess and spend extravagantly. Baudelaire calls her a whore and his “black Venus,” a term that Duval detested since her skin was light. She also resented the way Baudelaire portrayed her physical body in verse and sketches — all big breasts and buttocks, with the inscription “Quaerens quem devoret” (seeking whom to devour).

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Neither one seems to understand what attraction it is that they have for each other, but it is undeniable and similar to their other addictions.

Duval seems to have been able to weather their break-ups better than Baudelaire. She continued to take lovers (as she had even while with Baudelaire), including Manet, who painted her portrait.

Duval Manet

MacManus’ Duval does not admire Baudelaire’s poems or understand his fascination with the slums and seamy side of Parisian city life. Given her early life as a slave in Haiti and the violence of the revolution there, plus her personal experience of poverty in Paris, this makes sense. For MacManus, Duval’s dream was to leave Paris and start life anew in the American West, where she imagined her father living. Unfortunately, her dreams were thwarted but MacManus allows her one great act of selflessness and compassion before her death from tuberculosis.

This was a pretty good book. The history is solid and the story behind the banning of Baudelaire’s verses is interesting if you are unfamiliar with it. Overall, the creation of a story for Jeanne Duval and her relationship with Baudelaire was satisfactory.