Book Review: Purgatory, by Rosetta Allan

This book is available in bookstores nationwide.

According to Catholic doctrine, when you are in cv_purgatorypurgatory, you are destined for heaven. But you require the purification of your spirit, so as to achieve the requisite holiness before paradise is reached. Unfortunately for John Finnigan, the 10 year-old murdered youth of this book, purgatory is also a place of suffering or torment. He can’t touch anything, and he finds himself alone once the bodies of his mother and two brothers, who initially share purgatory with him, are discovered.

Perhaps purgatory is being left alone, abandoned by those closest to your heart. Or maybe it’s eternal boredom, the ultimate lesson in find-something-to-do that mothers have mouthed from time immemorial. ‘It’s so boring out here, we’re all getting ratty … nothing to do but fight,’ declares John on the second page. His journey, whilst in this state, from utter boredom to appreciation of the smallest things − owls, cats, pohutakawa trees − is an interesting one.

Rosetta Allan uses first person, present tense ‘ghost narration’ to place us dead in the centre (pardon the pun) of John’s world. ‘No one knows we’re dead, except him,’ states John in the first 50 words of the novel, ‘We’re the dead Finnigans’. So of course, the next question is, who killed John and his family in 1865?

And so John’s story is alternated with James’. James Stack, whose life seems tough from the start. But not as tough as John’s − John is dead, after all, and James has the gift of life. James’ story is told in third person, past tense. This creates distance and gifts a traditional voice to the events of his life. Nothing really seems to go well for James, who follows his sister across the world, with her woollen, lace collar in his pocket. As the collar disintegrates, so do aspects of James’ life. But all the while we are reminded: he is alive, at least. It speaks to Allan’s skill that important moments, such as how John and James’ lives intersect, are subtlely rendered and not easily guessed. Well, I was pleased by this, anyway.

My over-arching fascination with this book came from the knowledge that these events actually occurred. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries was the most recent book to remind me of the richness of our history and how untouched it has remained, in literature, until recently. Or, maybe it is only just starting to be explored in fiction well.

Living in Dunedin means hours can be spent perusing the settler exhibitions at Toitu (Otago Early Settlers’ Museum), Allan’s book is another reminder of the lives of characters in old photos that otherwise could remain historic artifacts of a time long-gone. Allan has explored her family history in a fictional way that reminds those of us from ‘other’ places (be it two or five generations back) that we were once settlers, that life was hard, and the world was a very different place.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Purgatory
by Rosetta Allan
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143571025

Catton on Bloom’s “critical hypocrisy”

The New Zealand Book Council Lecture, 6.15pm, Monday 10 March

Eleanor Catton broke new ground in literary criticism when giving the New Zealand Book Council’s Lecture, part of Writers Week and the New Zealand Festival at the Embassy Theatre on Monday night.

The importance of what she said, in eleanor_cattonmy view, will reverberate  through literary circles for some time,  if for no other reason than she is to give the lecture at a number of other events before it is likely to be published in full (although I understand that the Monday night lecture is available behind The Listener‘s paywall). But there are more important reasons behind my contention of longevity of her thoughts than just how many times they will be repeated.

The lecture, while complex, was beautifully written and delivered with compelling, but gentle confidence, in a pristine voice.

Catton’s initial delving into the physics of time and space – the past and the future – was somewhat fuzzy and Catton described it later, in answer to a question, as a “silly idea’ on  which she needed to do more work.

Real sharpness came though in her criticism of those who contend that character is more important than plot in literary fiction. “Good fiction…. requires meaning “, thus a plot.

And then Catton went into the attack. She dissected a number of Shakespeare’s works , particularly Hamlet, dismissing any thoughts that they were devoid of plot in favour of  character. She was particularly critical of Harold Bloom’s view that Shakespeare was a writer of genre rather than a writer of literary fiction; dismissing his arguments as “critical hypocrisy”. Catton described “as dreary as it is wrong headed”, Bloom’s claim that “investing in plot was not a Shakespearean talent: it was one dramatic talent that nature denied him”.

And there was more on Bloom, which I am sure will fuel the debate for some time once the Catton lecture is more widely disseminated.

In thinking of this debate regarding plot and character in literary fiction, there was one insight I gained personally from the lecture in regard to The Luminaries – well, I think I have. I loved the plot and initially let slide any real understanding of the astrology within the book, as many other readers have told me they also did. Some of those other “sliders”, though, lamented the fact that there was not enough character development.

Then on Monday night I put the thoughts together and realised that what Catton may well have done was indulge the character lovers by the device of the establishing the characters of the “players” by using their astrological signatures. So to understand the characters within The Luminaries, it seems to me you have to refer to the front of the book and the astrological signatures of each person.

Look out for the published lecture.

By Lincoln Gould, CEO, Booksellers NZ

Bookselling serves an astonishing role in society (A review of ‘Midwives and Meddlers’)

Midwives and Meddlers, 8 March, 4.45pm, The Embassy

‘Bookselling serves an astonishinmax_porterg role in society’ says editor Max Porter, who has found it a privilege to shop in the standard of independent bookshops that we have here in Wellington. I am certain he would be further impressed if he had a chance to shop throughout the regions, to which the presence of great out-of-town booksellers Carole Beu (Women’s Bookshop, Auckland) and Stella Chrystosomou (Page & Blackmore, Nelson) attests. I also know that Penny Geddis from Otatara Bookshop was somewhere in this audience, showing the love that all of these incredible booksellers have for the written word.

This was a fantastic way to beginning my Writer’s Week proper. Hearing such a talented editor speak with such a talented writer, as Eleanor Catton most certainly is, was a real joy. Porter remarked wryly that the full house must show how much of a fan we all are of editing – of course it was Catton who was the star attraction, and seeing her converse with somebody on equal terms was very enlightening, as well as entertaining.

eleanor_cattonCatton’s first question for Porter centred on a comment that Germaine Greer made to her (loudly, during another person’s session) during the last festival, that ‘There is no such thing as a good editor’. So what is the point of an editor – what role do they play? Porter answered this and more – the types of editing, from proofreading through to what he calls ‘in the trenches’ edits where every line needs work – and commented that due to the ‘unfortunate focus of the economic imperative’, the creative editor (as he is) is an endangered experience.

As you may have guessed from the opening sentences, Porter has a personal tie to bookselling, having been one himself. He believes that booksellers on the whole tend to make good publishers, as they ‘know how to communicate the validity of a writers word’. There are close ties between hand-selling and publishing, in particular.

‘It is a privilege to have a writer on your list who you will follow wherever they need to go’

While Catton made life difficult at times for her publishers, simply because her endeavour in writing The Luminaries was so ambitious, Porter asserted that there was never any doubt within the publishing company (Granta) that she would pull it off – mainly because Catton herself was so confident in the work. Though there was an amusing aside when Catton joined Twitter – two hours later, she had an email from Porter with ‘Twitter?!’ as the subject line, and #murderweapon in the body…

Porter picked this book up halfway (ish) through the process of publication, as Catton’s previous editor Sarah Holloway departed the company. Catton asked him whether there was anything that may have been different if he had begun with the book, which Porter evaded rather neatly by talking about other authors – particularly some poor soul that he had to pack off with a full first draft as it had turned into something they weren’t ready for and that he thought was the wrong direction for their career altogether. Porter was incredibly good at not naming names – disappointingly!

Porter said one of the important things an editor should contribute is not only that a line is wrong, but why it is wrong, and further, what the writer could do to fix it. He describes himself as a generous editor, as his delete sign always has a question mark on it, as the best way for a writer-editor relationship to proceed is to work together through knotty problems.

Catton didn’t speak at great length about The Luminaries, but we did learn that she doesn’t see it as fitting in the genre ‘historical fiction’ – I think rightly, it is more than that; but lovers of this genre may demur. We also learned that she is aware of the danger for her as a creative writing teacher to fit into an editorial role, and how wary she is of being a ‘midwife’ for their work.

This was a fascinating session, on a fascinating topic. I feel certain that everybody who was there from the industry came away intrigued. The quality of the audience questions suggested that many of them were either in the industry, or currently working on their own writing. The people who came to see our Ellie were possibly a bit disappointed as she spent a lot of time interviewing Porter, but there is always The Book Council Lecture to get their fill of the endlessly interesting Eleanor Catton. You’d better book quickly, as I have heard ticket numbers are getting very low.

By Sarah Forster, Web Editor

Eleanor Catton is delivering the inaugural New Zealand Book Council Lecture on Tuesday 11 March at 4.45pm. If you have tickets already, get there early, as it will be a tightly packed audience lining up to hear Eleanor speak. If you don’t have tickets – get some!

Booksellers NZ responds to The Listener’s editorial

The Listener editorial ‘The Book Case’ raises challenges and issues with which Kiwi  booksellers are very familiar: the threat of the internet, the lack of GST on goods bought online from offshore retailers. However, some of the  conclusions drawn by the editorial are invalid syllogisms. For instance, three bookshops have closed + internet sales have increased  = three bookshops have closed because of internet sales. Wrong. The reasons for Benny’s Books closing had more to do with the personal circumstances of the owner than anything else, Parsons in Wellington is closing because the owners want to pursue other interests in retirement and their music business had fallen off markedly. In Timaru, local competition was probably as much, if not more, to blame, for the demise of Chapters and Verses, as internet sales.

It is also invalid to conclude that just because three Independent bookstores have closed that we are going “to be left with a few large shops selling books alongside anything else that makes money.”  Current evidence and trends, especially out of the United States, point to medium and smaller bookshops that focus on meeting the needs of their local communities and customers  are more likely to survive than big chains that have turned themselves into “gift shops”.

The editorial, however, has it right when it states that “reading is a bedrock for all sorts of social and intellectual skills and that we should be making books as accessible and attractive as possible.” There is plenty of evidence that supports this and it is interesting to note the efforts of many New Zealand organisations to boost “reading for pleasure” as a social and economic imperative. This was supported by a hui of educators, reading and writing activists, booksellers, government agencies, and publishers late last year in Auckland.  A lot of new initiatives are likely to come as a result of that exercise.

And the editorial is right in calling for government action on issues such as GST. Booksellers don’t need government subsidies (authors do), but they do need a level playing field in which to compete.  However, it is wrong of the Listener to advise retailers “not to hold their breath” on the GST issue because nothing has changed since 2011. A lot has changed including obviously that a lot more revenue is being lost to the Government since 2011. More importantly, the fallacy that it would not be cost efficient to collect GST on items below $400 has been exposed by research carried out by the Institute for the Study of Competition and Regulation at Victoria University. This research showed that the government was calculating its collection costs incorrectly, but also suggested solutions that would not be unduly expensive. It is time the Government did what the Japanese Government did a couple of weeks ago and declare its intent to collect GST on these goods, including books, while a solution is implemented.

It is also invalid to conclude that “books in New Zealand are very expensive”  because the Book Depository/ Amazon can land books in New Zealand  much cheaper than local booksellers can sell them for. Like for like must be compared, and the books that the BD often sell into New Zealand might have the same title but are not exactly the same book from a pricing point of view. Take for instance the now world-famous The Luminaries. BD are selling Catton’s authorship , both in hardback and paperback in New Zealand dollars at  prices discounted from a Recommended Retail Prices (RRP) much lower than the RRP in New Zealand. This is because BD is buying The Luminaries from the UK publisher where the GST equivalent, VAT, is not charged on books – thus the RRP is lower – and then converting that to NZ dollars and discounting from there.

New Zealand has more bookshops per head of population than most other English language countries. There is a lot of change occurring, with many now selling e-books and e-readers and also selling books throughout New Zealand and overseas through their own online stores. It would be very foolish to write off the kiwi bookshop because of the internet  revolution.

pp_lincoln_gould_colourLincoln Gould, CEO, Booksellers NZ

The Luminaries illuminates the Bestsellers Chart for 2013

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, has sold more copies in New Zealand than any other book to date* this year.

According to publisher, Fergus Barrowman, pp_fergus_barrowman_smlthe actual sales figures are currently sitting at around 64,000 copies. Victoria University Press have around 11,000 copies available in their warehouse, and hope that this will see them through the Christmas period. Fergus adds, ‘and don’t forget over 7000 copies of the ebook have sold in NZ alone.’

The Luminaries was released in New Zealand on 2 August 2013, a week after it was announced as one of 13 titles on the Booker longlist. (Granta published the title in the UK shortly before). Sales to date average out at a massive 546 copies a day. Fergus puts the success of The Luminaries down to the fact that, ‘…it makes NZ history extremely interesting and exciting’. Readers have found the book enormously rewarding.

Did Fergus have an inkling that this book was a potential Booker-prize winner? ‘Yes. I knew how good it was perhaps two years ago when I first read part one, and I knew that Max Porter at Granta felt the same. Of course, as well as exceptional quality a book needs a bit of good luck.’

While it isn’t unusual for a Booker-prize winning boocv_the_luminaries_HBk to rocket to the top of bestsellers charts internationally, it is unusual here in New Zealand for the prize to have such a huge effect (though admittedly a NZ-set book by a NZ author doesn’t usually win!) It is also unusual to see a literary work top the charts for both the general chart (which takes in all bookstores in New Zealand, excepting Whitcoulls), and the Indie Top 20 (taking in only independent bookstores). It is difficult for local publications to beat out the big internationals with their marketing juggernauts – Lee Child’s Never Go Back and Dan Brown’s Inferno take second and third spots in the general chart.

We asked Fergus whether these levels of sales had ever happened before to him in his career as a publisher. ‘The Vintner’s Luck took off at the end of 1998 and sold 40,000 in 12 months.’ After mentioning that VUP didn’t begin to catch up with demand for The Luminaries until the sixth reprint (of 30,000 copies), he reflected that what had happened with The Vintner’s Luck ‘should have given us the courage to respond more boldly when The Luminaries began to go.’

The hardback of The Luminaries also reached number five on the NZ Fiction bestsellers to date, and is the only hardback on that chart.

Victoria University Press publishes both fiction and non-fiction,cv_the_vintners_luck_silver focusing on good quality literary fiction. Have they published anything else that they thought may have taken off in this way? Fergus says ‘I knew The Vintner’s Luck’s potential, but we pulled back our initial print-run because the trade was cautious…we are very happy to publish books that we know are unlikely to reach a big readership: short stories, first books, experimental fiction. We have published eight fiction titles this year, and all have met expectations.’

Eleanor Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, has also experienced an upsurge in sales, and has been prominent in the NZ Fiction charts for the past few weeks. This has led to VUP reprinting twice in 2013.

The only other New Zealand book on the Overall Bestsellers Chart was Annabel Langbein the Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures, which came in at number eight.

by Sarah Forster

* The overall chart is for sales until 30 November 2013.

International Press about the Man Booker Prize win

While we have been covering New Zealand media coverage of Eleanor Catton’s win of the Man Booker Prize in our daily ‘Words of the Day’, we haven’t had enough time to pay much attention to what the world has been saying.

There are several main news agencies in the world (AP, APA, Reuters et al), whose press releases have been replicated with a couple of changes throughout the world – while I have tried to only replicate these once, there will be overlap inevitably. I have also pulled some ‘quoteable quotes’ from a few of them, both silly and good, and I will leave it to you to decide which to read.

Canada

“I do feel that my Canadian identity growing up was something that was really important to me, especially as a child. Because I was the only Canadian in my family, I felt a special connection to the country.”The Globe and Mail

The Rehearsal was adored by critics and won a number of prizes, including the Amazon.ca First Novel Award after it was published in Canada in 2010.’CBC CA

‘The choice should give heart to young authors of oversized tales.’– Associated Press – this has been replicated all over the world

Toronto bookstore owner Ben McNally: “The Luminaries is astonishing,” he said when the Giller shortlist was announced last week. “I didn’t expect anything from this book and it blew my head off. That’s what you want out of a book.” The Star – also the recipient of a few kiwis’ ire at the fact she is being claimed.

Australia

And after The Rehearsal she said she wanted to write a novel that was highly structured and conceptual. She used astrology because ”whenever a pattern is set up in this system – this planet in this sign etc – that will mean something in terms of what influences are brought to bear on the overall picture.”– The Age

‘The novel, described as a “Kiwi Twin Peaks”, follows fortune-seeker Walter Moody during the New Zealand gold rush of the mid-1800s.’  – Australia Network News

“I’ve had to buy a new handbag, because my old handbag wasn’t big enough to hold my book.” – (Australian Associated Press, including Sydney Morning Herald)

Catton’s win was a bad result for the bookies, as she was a shortening second favourite, behind English veteran Jom Crace, shortlisted for Harvest. The Australian

United Kingdom

The Guardian headlines – Eleanor Catton’s Precocious Predecessors; Eleanor Catton, ‘Male Authors get asked what they think, Women what they feel’; Eleanor Catton: The Land of the Long White Cloud; Eleanor Catton asks novel questions with epic ambition in The Luminaries

“Such an identity of two islands as well as two countries is befitting for the last winner of the Booker in its solely Commonwealth manifestation. Well done and good luck, Eleanor Catton.”The Conversation

“Ms Catton said she was hit by “a white wall” when her name was read out, and as she walked to the podium was struck by “a dry mouth and trembling knees”.” – The Independent

Traditional storytelling, admittedly ably assisted by sufficient shaggy dogs to power a giant sled, has secured the 2013 Man Booker Prize for the youngest winner in the award’s history.”The Irish Times

.. shortly before 10pm yesterday evening the novelist won the Man Booker prize for her compulsively readable account of intrigue during the gold rushes in Victorian New Zealand…Catton plainly has a remarkable career ahead of her.” – GQ Magazine

USA

‘The choice comes as a surprise to say the least.’ – TIME Magazine.

“We had one customer who said that this was more important for New Zealand than winning the Rugby World Cup,” Unity’s Todd Atticus told AFP. – Global Post (reproduced elsewhere)

“Writing in The Guardian, Kirsty Gunn called “The Luminaries” a “consummate literary page-turner.””New York Times

ARTS: A light from Down Under makes BookTulsa World – OK, that’s the headline, but I quite like it, obtuse though it is.

“It’s amazing, it’s magic for Eleanor,” said Robert Sullivan, the institute’s head of creative writing. He added that Ms. Catton’s students have all had “their sights raised” thanks to her achievement.” – Wall Street Journal

Mt Eden’s Time Out Bookstore Launched Man Booker Prize Winner 2013

On Thursday, 1 August, 2013 at 6:00pm Time Out cv_the_luminaries_HBBookstore in Auckland’s Mt Eden were proud to host the Auckland launch of the 2013 Man Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries (Victoria University Press). Launched in style by her New Zealand publisher, Fergus Barrowman of Victoria University Press the launch was a total sell out of hardback copies of the book available on the night. Time Out Bookstore went on to sell 87 copies of the hardback in total, nearly a tenth of the total print run of 1000 which is now out of print.

A capacity crowd turned out in force to support the growing buzz around Eleanor Catton’s second novel, after 2008’s widely acclaimed The Rehearsal. Eleanor spoke eloquently about the twin importance of pounamu and gold to the novel’s plot.

The youngest Man Booker winner in the prize’s 45-year history (she is 28 but completed The Luminaries aged 27) has triumphed with the longest ever Man Booker winning novel (832 pages). Catton is just the second New Zealander to win the prize, the first being Keri Hulme with The Bone People in 1985 (the year Eleanor Catton was born).

The Man Booker Prize promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year. The prize is the world’s most important literary award and has the power to transform the fortunes of authors and publishers.

The Luminaries is available in-store at $35, paperback.

For further information contact:
Nevena Nikolic
Book Buyer
Time Out Bookstore
09-6303331 / nevena@timeout.co.nz