In November 2013 , I attended a talk by three women writers who spoke about what had inspired them to write. Annelies Verbeke is a Belgian writer while Christine Otten hails from Netherland and they both write in Dutch. Chiew-Sieh Tei who originally hailed from Malaysia currently resides in Glasgow and she writes in Chinese and English. When I heard the European writers read passages from their writings, they had sounded so poignant and moving that I wish I could understand Dutch. It was apparent from the translated texts shown on the large screen that they were stories that I would enjoy reading. The memoir that was written by Christine Otten was about her dad while Annelies Verbeke writes about people who are quirky and Chiew-Sieh Tei writes about the indigenous people of Malaysia.
Perhaps it is because I am reactive, I have things to blog and write about. I have all these ideas that I like to pen down and I get lost in just writing them. Maybe they are just words that mean nothing at all but I want to say them all even if they are merely inconsequential stuff, mostly passing thoughts….one must not take anything too literally nor too seriously.
I used to think that it was not good to react to things as it made you edgy and far from cool. I remember a medical student once said, ‘the question is : do we react or do we act ?’ I cannot recall why it had been brought up, it was probably just for the sake of discussion. At that time I did not think much about it until later on. I kept asking myself not to react but to act only as I had a tendency to react to situations and events. But then I think I am one of those people who have a reaction to most things, every single incident or event can prompt or inspire a reaction from me. In some situations, I would be considered defensive but most of the time, I am probably just a feely person. I suppose I am what I eat and drink as much as I am what I read. I am not sure if I am what I say when I speak. There are times I end up saying things I do not mean to say, I find myself having goose bumps. There are also times when I end up not saying things I want to say, they get all stuck in my head because of civility or because I should not utter unkind words but sometimes they still get blurted out and come across caustic, not so innocently after all.
I read The Luminaries written by Eleanor Catton during my vacation in December 2014 . I started reading it before my trip and had every intention to finish reading it as my luggage was already full of winter clothings and I had not planned to carry more than one suitcase. Just as the dozen characters and their secret meeting intrigued me and made me want to read on about the missing man and the young prostitute who was addicted to opium, I realized that I had to take a break and I could not rush through hundreds of pages of the writing amidst all the disruptions due to my impending trip. Eleanor Catton’s prose was so beautiful that you really need the quiet time to truly appreciate it.
The story was set in the 19th century during the gold rush in New Zealand, Walter Moody a young Scottish lawyer arrived in Hokitika hoping to make his fortune. After he had checked into the Crown Hotel, he walked into the smoking room and stumbled upon a secret congregation between twelve men who had gathered to discuss the death of one man, a missing man and the arrest of Anna Wetherell, a whore who was charged for attempted suicide. Amongst the twelve men, there was a banker , a whoremonger, a pharmacist , a pair of Chinese men. a chaplain, a politician , a French man and a Maori.
Here is a description of the ambience of the smoking room.
‘There was a silence in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel-a silence that , for a moment, seemed to still the breath of every man, and still the smoke that rose in coils from the pipes, the cigarettes, the cheroots, and the cigars.‘
Lydia Wells ,the other female character in the story was going to introduce séance to the men in town. When Mr Moody met Mrs Wells, this transpired between them .
When he had finished speaking she said,’Do you have an interest in the occult, Mr Moody?’ – a question which Moody could not answer honestly without risking offence.
He paused only a moment, however, before replying, “There are many things that are yet arcane to me , Mrs Wells, and I hope that I am a curious man; if I am interested in those truths that are yet unknown, it is only so that they might, in time, be made known –or, to put it more plainly, so that in time, I might come to know them.’
‘You are wonderfully free with one verb, I notice,’ the widow returned. ‘What does it mean for you, Mr Moody, to know something? I fancy you put rather a lot of stock in knowing- judging from the way you speak.’
Moody smiled. ‘Why,’ he said, ’I suppose that to know a thing is to see it from all sides.’‘To see it from all sides,’ the widow repeated.“But I confess you catch me off guard ; I have not spent any time working on the definition, and should not like to hear it quoted back to me – at least not until I have spent some time thinking about how I might defend it.’
“No,’ the widow agreed, ’your definition leaves much to be desired. There are so many exceptions to the rule! How could one possibly see a spirit from all sides, for example? The notion is incredible.’
There was a description about Mr Moody at the beginning of the story.
‘He was resolved, in accordance with his strategy, to field Balfour’s questions politely and without reservation :it would give him licence later to demand some answers of his own. Moody had no small genius for the art of diplomacy. As a child he had known instinctively that it was always better to tell a partial truth with a willing aspect than to tell a perfect truth in a defensive way. The appearance of co-operation was worth a great deal, if only because it forced a reciprocity, fair met with fair….
As an observer, Mr Moody was somehow drawn into the intrigue and was regarded as the men’s confidence. ‘
The author gave vivid descriptions of each character and you can imagine trying to cast each character in a film. The scenes in the book feel theatrical and the characters colourful. The book needs your full attention. As I was distracted when I read the Luminaries, I found myself having to revisit the pages to find out what happened to the villain in the story and also to read again some of the chapters to see how everything fit in. The Luminaries is superbly written for its creator is a master wordsmith and the story is masterfully executed.