In looking back over the past year, the books I've enjoyed the most happen to be novels and they happen to be long. Whether this is a literary trend, my own evolving proclivities, or just coincidence, I can't tell. There is one very significant exception which I'll get to at the end.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is absolutely extraordinary. I read it for the same reason it's probably in your bookshelf – it won the Booker Prize, now the Man Booker Prize since The Man Group became the sponsor. Over the years I've read most of the winners and many of the short-listed books. It's a good way to catch up on the latest by some of the great Commonwealth authors (next year Americans can compete!) and it tends to go to a respected, even famous, author with a long lifetime of great literature in the portfolio. This year it went to Ms. Catton from New Zealand?
Who? Don't worry, until this book showed up on the short list, nobody knew of her. She was 25 years old when she started writing this, her second novel, and by the time she was 28 she had won one of the most prestigious writing awards on the planet.
That all seems incredibly unlikely, until you read her book. Remember, this prize goes to a specific novel, not a body of work, so her thin resume doesn't technically count against Ms. Catton, but it would have to be a heck of a book to even be in the running, let alone win. It is, my friends, it is.
The book is a mystery so I'll describe what I love about it without giving anything away. Set mostly in a 19th Century New Zealand gold mining town, it exactly capture the spirit of the times. Ok, I admit, I know absolutely nothing about 19th Century New Zealand gold mining, but every note rings true. There's not a noticeable anachronism, there's not a sentiment expressed that seems out of place, there's not an obvious flaw anywhere. The writing style is precisely Victorian, told from the period-perfect omniscient narrator. Every chapter starts with an “In which…” italicized subtitle. The couple of dozen characters stay completely in character and are clearly delineated. The plot unfolds, no propels itself, in a way that is impossible to set aside.
And yet, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that this is a modern, very modern, hyper-modern novel. The author sets a very ambitious goal and, to my enchanted mind, pulls it off brilliantly. How many people can write an old-fashioned novel that happens to reinvent the art form of the novel? Maybe David Mitchell and a few others. Add Eleanor Catton.
The other two long novels are ones everyone has already been talking about, perhaps for different reasons. I loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt, was not crazy about her second novel The Little Friend, but fell right back in love with The Goldfinch. It's another explosively self-propelled plot and Ms. Tartt's mastery of writing is evident on every page. It's the most fun book I've read all year.
This last novel is cheating a bit because it's more than a year old, but it has stayed with me like few others. J. K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy is a heart-wrenching story. It's not an easy read. Like Skippy Dies, it starts with an excruciating death but this time there is no easy humor to ease the shock. Instead, a complex sequence of social interactions unfold where everyone's self-guided motives combine to ensure nothing quite goes as it should. It all seems so very real. Every character is not just believable but familiar, sometimes shamefully so. I know reviews have been all over the map on this one but for me, it's not just a good book, it's a Great Book. Just know ahead of time that you're in for quite a journey.
By the way, The Cuckoo's Calling is a cracking good detective story too.
Finally, the exception. The Tenth of December, a book of short stories by George Saunders, is something you must read. Better yet, you must read and listen to. The audio book is a revelation. It's narrated by the author and his quirky voice brings out the humor and the darkness, and oh my, there is plenty of both. Once again, not an easy read. I've gone back and retraced each story several times. They're kind of like magic tricks. Once they're over, you have to go back just to see how he pulled them off, and then you're even more amazed.