This may well be one of the more anticlimactic columns I do this year, if only because the three books discussed — two of them, anyway — have been works that have been discussed a whole hell of a lot this year already. That said, I was also very impressed with all three of them — if my top-ten-of-2013 list had been something closer to a top twenty, all of these would have been on there. Also? All three are books that could be described as “weighty tomes” — two are smite-your-enemies size, and one’s only a little less.
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries features one of the more interesting structures I’ve encountered in a while. It begins with the telling of stories; there’s an almost archetypal “a stranger comes to town” setup, as a man newly arrived in New Zealand to seek his fortune in the gold rush, and hears an intertwined series of narratives about a mysterious death, blackmail, and disappearances. Catton has cited modern television as an influence, and I described this to one friend as, at times, reading like an amalgamation of Deadwood and Twin Peaks. (There are a few incidents that defy the otherwise-realistic mode of the book.) Catton’s structure is also based around astrological signs; readers with more of a background in astrology than me might have a different take on this, but for me, it worked more in terms of mood than anything else. As mentioned earlier, there are some scenes in this book that veer into the surreal; having the presence of something outside of the scientific established early on helps expand the potential of this novel’s (vast) world.
I’m a sucker for novels written with centuries-old Dutch art at the center. Ask me about Laird Hunt’s The Exqusite, for instance, and I’m liable to talk your ear off about it. (Or just point you to this essay.) And so Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch hit a couple of sweet spots for me from the outset. It opens with its narrator, Theo, holed up in an Amsterdam hotel; clearly, something awful has happened. He thinks back on the circumstances that have brought him to this point: his first sight of the painting that gives the novel its title; the tragedy that leads to his mother’s death and connects him to an antiques dealer; and his journey away from his home and back again. Tartt’s canvas is wide, and she’s dealing with tremendous themes: how we deal with trauma, the way familial bonds can ebb and flow with time, and the redemptive power of art. And while I enjoyed parts of the novel more than others, Tartt’s ending was, for me, incredibly strong — which is always a plus when reading a work of this size.
Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is, like Catton’s novel, impressively structured. In it, a novelist named Ruth discovers the diary of a young Japanese woman, written some time before; in that narrative can be found accounts of horrific depression and family secrets. It’s a deeply layered work, at times crushingly sad and at times incredibly hopeful; Ozeki is also equally at home evoking urban Japan and the quasi-rural Pacific Northwest. Throw in historical scope and some quietly uncanny bits, and you have something that delves into your mind in unexpected ways.
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