Maggie Fergusson in More Intelligent Life:
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, Granta, hardback, out now. Winter 1866, and a Scot newly arrived in the New Zealand goldfields stumbles on a motley conclave—opium dealer, card-sharp, cleric—debating recent happenings. One man's dead, another's disappeared, and the local whore has apparently attempted suicide. So opens this 832-page masterpiece, daunting to pick up, impossible to put down. Tale is laid upon tale, and everyone is forced to confront his own darkness. Like a juggler, Catton throws hundreds of balls in the air, and somehow catches them all. Shades of Wilkie Collins and Sarah Waters, but her style is distinct and vigorous. She doesn't so much tell her story as inhabit it, amused by her characters' foibles, yet able to reflect on the human condition with a wisdom normally associated with great age. Eleanor Catton is 28.
An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris, Hutchinson, hardback, out now. Robert Harris is unrivalled when it comes to turning complex history into thriller fiction. Here, in a novel faithful to historical fact, he unravels one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice ever known: the conviction of a Jewish army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, for spying, and his condemnation in 1895 to a “death worse than death” on Devil’s Island. Told in the first person by Colonel Georges Picquard, who eventually established Dreyfus's innocence and revealed corruption running like rot through the French army, it perfectly captures fin-de-siècle Paris: seedy, febrile and rabidly anti-Semitic. In an eerie foreshadowing of the future Dreyfus travels into exile in a cattle truck. The son of the man who framed him, Charles du Paty de Clam, became head of Jewish affairs in the Vichy government.