At 823 pages and two inches thick, and weighted down by hefty awards—a Booker and a Governor General’s—The Luminaries (McClelland & Stewart) by Eleanor Catton is a doorstopper of a book, threatening a potentially dense and impossible read. The novel sat on my bedside table for more than a few weeks as the questions arose: a) Would I be able to get through it? b) How long would it take? c) How boring would it be? (See answer key at the end of this endnote.) Despite Catton’s protests (and methinks she doth protest way too much), this story of mega-proportions is set up like a good old-fashioned mystery in the style of Ms. A. Christie (genre-fiction readers rejoice!). The Luminaries begins in a rough, scrubby gold town on the west coast of South Island, New Zealand, in the mid-1800s. Three discoveries are made: the murder of a recluse, the disappearance of a prominent and wealthy citizen, and a well-liked prostitute unconscious in the middle of a road outside of town. Twelve characters assemble to disclose what each knows and how each is connected to the unsavoury events. Like any good mystery novel, the plot of The Luminaries unfolds through tantalizing clues and the revelation of relationships between characters; the investigators (the twelve first assembled in chapter one) often wander in the wrong direction. The characters are likable and flawed, and some are just plain dastardly. In the end, it all ties up very neatly. Answers: a) Yes. b) Two weeks. c) Not at all.
Another award-winning book you’ve probably never heard of (in 2008, the Prix France-Québec; in 2009, the Prix Senghor du Premier Roman francophone; in 2010, the Prix du Club des Irrésistibles), is The Douglas Notebooks (Goose Lane Editions) by Christine Eddie, translated by Sheila Fischman. This slender book tells the story of two strangers who reject the small-town homes in which they were raised and choose lives connected to the natural world: Romain becomes a forest dweller and Eléna an apothecary. The pursuit of a deeper connection to the natural world because the civilized (or unnatural) world is an unwelcoming place is ageless. People have left cities to reconnect to nature as long ago as the time of the Roman Empire and as recently as this year when my twenty-three-year-old friend rejected second-year university in favour of learning cultural and traditional practices with a First Nations elder. The Douglas Notebooks is compact in size, but it is a story of epic love. Romain and Eléna find in nature and in each other what was missing from their family homes: security, beauty, simplicity and love. Together they create a paradise in a rural landscape where place names honour saints and animals: Sainte-Palmyre, Saint-Lupien, Rivière-aux-Oies. Living in nature without modern conveniences is constant work: hauling water, tending to gardens and animals and, in Canada, preparing for the next season or seasonal act to come. Living a back-to-the-land life is not romantic, though the experiences can be. Romain and Eléna live romantically and completely within their paradise. As in all Eden stories, the heroes experience a fall. It is their human fallibility that begins the unravelling of the lovers’ Utopian life. Though they escape the community, it is a community of people who ultimately offers them hope and a way for their love to live on, even though it’s transformed.