The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize and tipped to win (I've read it, and it's mightily impressive). Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, a debut novel, the subject of an international bidding war, out this week and high on my TBR pile. The authors of these books came all the way from New Zealand and Australia respectively to talk to an eager audience at EIBF.
Eleanor's book is set on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island during a gold rush in the 1860s, and it was the drama of that landscape, which Eleanor visited often as a youngster, which captured her imagination and inspired her story. Hannah's takes as its subject Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland, and an exchange visit she made to Iceland as a teenager planted the seed that would grow into a work praised by Madeline Miller as "gripping ... beautifully written ... outstanding."
The Luminaries is a murder mystery, a ghost story, a psychological drama, a book of extraordinary complexity and richness written in perfect 19th. century style. In discussing her influences, Eleanor talked persuasively about her desire to "defend the adverb", how psychology changed the landscape of the novel forever, and how Agatha Christie's books taught her how to keep the reader reading. In Burial Rites, which tells Agnes's story from when she is found guilty of murder, sentenced to death and waits out the months until her execution at a farm in the north of the country, Hannah has used several narrative voices and fragments of letters, aiming by these means to explore the ambiguity, depth and humanity of her subject, contrasting that with received opinion which paints Agnes as simply and starkly "monstrous and evil".
Both books are very well plotted, and on the subject of plotting generally, Eleanor talked about what is seen as a distinction between literary and genre fiction, i.e. that in the case of the former, plot is secondary. This fascinates and enrages her, she says, as she feels plot is every bit as important as structure, and that novelists could learn a lot from watching high quality television drama such as Breaking Bad which provide lessons in suspense and in keeping character and plot alive and developing. Eleanor wanted her book to be entertaining: "entertainment isn't necessarily low brow," she said. In Hannah's case, her plot was formed by actual events, although her research into them was gradual and laborious. She was researching and writing concurrently, "finding the dots and then joining them," so the suspense "just happened" as she waited to discover what came next, but the effort she put into understanding and shaping her characters shaped the plot, too.
Hannah told us that her book is "a dark love letter to the natural landscape of Iceland", reflecting in some ways her own experience of living there, of the slow descent into winter, of the place and its culture. Eleanor, when asked whether her book could have been shorter (it is 832 pages), talked of wanting to do justice to the 19th. century style she'd adopted and to her large cast of characters by giving them space to evolve. She employs a structural conceit, too, making each part half the length of the one before, thus "a golden spiral", a shaping force, and she admitted that she didn't know whether the ambitious task she had set herself was even possible until she had completed it. I can tell you that she's done it in fine form.