We are all completely beside ourselves

by Karen Joy Fowler

Not sure why I decided to read this.  I think it was an Amazon recommendation, when I downloaded a couple of other books using Kindle Unlimited (from which I’ve now unsubscribed).

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It’s difficult to review it, though, without giving away a key part of the story which only becomes apparent at around page 77.  Suffice to say that the story revolves around the nature of families and the ethics of scientific research on human and animal subjects.  The family in the centre of the story is unusual, and the characters at its centre and even those on the periphery are drawn clearly and with sympathy. Even the slightly crazy – and apparently unprincipled – Harlow is depicted as a young woman from a caring family who is perhaps just a little excitable.

I had imagined that the author was a young woman, and was surprised to read that she is in her early sixties.  Maybe this is not so surprising, after all.  Rosemary’s story deliberately starts in the middle, and jumps around, though this is all key to the unfolding story and is in no way confusing or indeed unnecessary.  Though most of the action takes place when Rosemary is a student, there are episodes from her childhood and a brief glimpse, at the end, of her life as an adult in her 40s.

I won’t say any more.  Definitely 8/10 for this book.

The Luminaries

by Eleanor Catton

An intriguing book, which I found compelling, almost in spite of myself.

It is very long (more than 800 pages) and quite daunting, with a large cast of characters.  The story unfolds slowly at first, and speeds up dramatically towards the end.  The book is very tightly structured, with its twelve ‘parts’ each relating to incidents on a particular day, and the ‘chapters’ relating a specific incident or a couple of related incidents.  Each chapter heading is followed by a summary of the content of the chapter, in true nineteenth-century style, and the language used throughout is clearly aimed to make the reader feel that they are reading a contemporary account.

The story picks up speed as its threads are brought together towards the end of the book, with the last few parts giving the story of the various characters in the months preceding the events that the main story relates.  And in the last few chapters, the “In which…” preamble tells the reader more than the text itself.

Some of these devices seem to me rather contrived; and the astrological theme running through the book in its chapter headings and elegantly drawn charts adds nothing at all to the story or its characters, in my view.  I couldn’t really work out why the author had chosen to use this device.  Surely the story tells itself adequately through the actual text.

The setting – a New Zealand ‘gold rush town’ in the 1860s – is wholly convincing. Every detail of landscape, seascape, buildings, interiors, costumes, daily tasks and even attitudes is convincingly drawn, and sings from the page.  The characters are just as convincing.  I’m asking myself whether the way that we know, almost from the first, who are the ‘goodies’ and who the ‘baddies’, detracts from the story at all.  I have come to the conclusion that it does not.  No one comes out as wholly good – unless perhaps it is Anna and Staines, who turn out to be the ‘luminaries’ of the title, and Walter Moody, who is something of a God-like figure. Though even he has a murky past.

Are there some unnecessary elements in the story, or indeed unnecessary characters?  Possibly, but I don’t feel that the story is weighed down by them.  Each character is interesting, and each has a part to play.  The juxtaposition of a cast of people whose lives cross at several unrelated intersections seems to me wholly plausible, especially in such a small, isolated community.

The Luminaries tells how individual choices and actions can have a knock-on effect far beyond what we might envisage.  A person whose behaviour is generally selfless can make a mistake with devastating consequences.  A person who wishes to right a wrong done to them can inadvertently and unknowingly (or unthinkingly) do great harm to someone else.  It is not the stars that determine our fate: it is our own actions and those of other people.