Revisiting the Past

Reviewed by Dee Horne

Eleanor Catton and Olive Senior illustrate a past made up of fiction and fact, unreliable narrators and witnesses, and diverse, memorable stories. Catton returns to the 1860’s gold rush in New Zealand while Senior depicts an elderly Jamaican woman’s recollections of her life. Both novels question truth; accounts vary not only from person to person but also between different recollections of any given person’s re-telling.

Awarded the 2013 Man Booker Prize, The Luminaries is engaging precisely because the further the tale spins, the less certain readers are that they know anything. There are twelve parts and each corresponds to a different astrological sign, a structure that is appropriate for a story about luck and fortune. Within each part, there are different headings, rather than chapters, that are astrologically labeled. In a nineteenth-century vein, Catton prefaces each section with a narrative summary and uses language and a writing style that evokes the period. In the first four parts of the novel, time flows forward but then jumps back and forth and the parts become progressively shorter and shorter until the last one, in which the narrative summary preface is longer than the actual narrative, and which takes place ten days before the opening scene. The more we learn about the characters, the less we know. Catton reveals the absurdity of claiming to know anyone, any story, and any history.

She has thoroughly researched the New Zealand gold rush and includes details that make us want to believe. Reader, beware. A clever hybrid work that blends historical fiction, ghost story, mystery, love story and Tristram Shandy-like cock-and-bull stories of deceit, addiction, identity theft, betrayal, forgery, revenge, and blackmail, the story twists and turns, surprising us to the end.

The book opens with twelve fortune hunters, mirrored by the twelve astrological signs, who meet to uncover a mystery that revolves around gold fraud and a prostitute by the name of Anna Wetherell who indeed does weather them all. When we first meet her, she is down on her luck, and has clearly been set up. The antagonists of the story, Francis Carver and Lydia (Wells) Carver, are determined to recover the gold they stole and sewed into five dresses that went missing. This story weaves in and out of many others, connecting the twelve characters whose paths cross and crisscross throughout the narrative, reminding readers to distrust all stories.

Although the lengthy earlier sections may have some readers wishing Catton had a more ruthless editor, persistence is a must, for this is a fun shaggy dog story of greed and passions that motivate and enslave humans and the lies and stories they create. The lengths to which one woman will go to avoid knowing herself and her children is the subject of Olive Senior’s Dancing Lessons. “G” (Gertrude Samphire), a Jamaican elder, loses her country home to a hurricane. Her eldest daughter, Celia, places her in Ellesmere Lodge, an assisted living home.

Constrained by the rituals and the routines and the Matron whose “eyebrows crawl like centipedes up to her hairline,” “G” later sees an opportunity to liberate herself. Writing in journal entries, she airs her grievances and losses and reclaims herself. Abandonment and loneliness haunt her. Her mother died shortly after her birth and she grew up with her father’s relations who resented her. She never knew the man in this house was her father and when, as a teen she learns he is, and he shares his love of dancing with her, their relationship is cut short because he is sent away to a mental health institution. Charles Leacroft Samphire, known as Sam, the man “G” runs off with and later marries, leaves her with his mother. He is often drunk and abusive and has numerous affairs, coming and going as he pleases, leaving “G” to mind the small farm and raise their four children. “G’s” abandonment carries over to the next generation when Celia goes to live with a Reverend and his wife who raise her. “G” tells herself the Reverend came “[t]o steal my child,” yet her guilt pervades her journal entries. While she is aware of the gulf between herself and her children, “G” is unaware of how little she knows them. In entry 62, she considers that she has never loved any of them, adding that perhaps no one ever loved her. Her observation provides a context for her actions and an awareness of her self-pity that, if not redeemable, at least makes her believable. That she often concealed the truth from her children may well explain why they haven’t shared their lives with her:

Not a word did I say about my black eyes and split lip and noises in the night. Not a word when their father left. Didn’t I of all people know the awfully destructive power of silence? Yet I silenced my own children with a look, forced their own words back inside them with a hand raised to strike.

Senior’s insights about gender, race, and class in Jamaica reveal her keen eye for details. “G” recalls that her grandmother’s parents had come from England. She attributes her grandmother Celia’s hatred of her to her colonial snobbery, specifically Celia’s view that G and her family are inferior because G’s mother’s family “had come from out of the cane fields.” Racial discrimination within the family is evident when “G” notes, “But while Miss Celia and Aunt Zena’s skin was white and mottled with freckles, my father’s was logwood honey.”

The motif of dance spins from guilty pleasure to guilt (the loss of her father, the death of Mr. Bridges, the loss of communication with her children) to “fragments of self-assertiveness.” The revelation about Mr. Bridges and the inevitable talk with Celia are predictable yet poignant. The lessons “G” learns are the hard truths about her children, her relations, but most of all herself. In re-visiting the past, these two novels invite us to reflect on the present.

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