For the next three weeks, Globe Books brings you an advance look at some of the fall’s biggest Canadian novels. We begin with Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, currently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
In 1866, at the height of the New Zealand gold rush, 12 powerful townsmen gather in secret to investigate what connects three unsolved crimes. In this excerpt, Joseph Pritchard, the mining town’s chemist and opium dealer, is on his way to question local prostitute Anna Wetherell about the opium that almost killed her.
Joseph Pritchard, upon quitting Nilssen’s offices, had not returned immediately to his laboratory on Collingwood-street. He had made his way instead to the Gridiron, one of the sixty or seventy hotels that lined Revell-street along its most crowded and lively stretch. This establishment (which, with its canary trim and false shutters, showed a gay frontage even in the rain) was the habitual residence of Miss Anna Wetherell, and although it was not the latter’s custom to entertain callers at this hour of the day, it was not Pritchard’s custom to conduct his business according to any schedule but his own. He stamped up the steps and hauled open the door without so much as a nod to the diggers on the veranda, who were sitting in a row with their boots upon the rail, alternately whittling, cleaning their nails, and spitting tobacco into the mud. They looked at him with some amusement as he passed darkly into the foyer, remarking, once the door had thudded shut behind him, that there was a man very much determined to get to the bottom of something.
Pritchard had not encountered Anna in many weeks. He had heard about her attempted suicide only third-hand, via Dick Mannering, who in turn had relayed the intelligence of Ah Sook, the Chinese man who managed the opium den at Kaniere. Anna frequently plied her trade at Kaniere Chinatown, and for that reason was known colloquially as Chinaman’s Ann – a designation that harmed her popularity in some circles, and greatly accented it in others. Pritchard belonged to neither camp – he held little interest in the private lives of other men – so he was neither titillated nor repulsed to learn that the whore was a particular favourite of Ah Sook’s, and that her near-death, as Mannering reported to Pritchard later, had driven the man almost to hysteria. (Mannering did not speak Cantonese, but he knew a handful of written characters, including metal, want, and die – enough to conduct a pictographic colloquy with the aid of his pocketbook, an object that was by now so heavily marked and foxed with use that he was able to perform very sophisticated rhetorical allusions simply by leafing back through the pages and pointing with his fingers to an old quarrel, an old settlement, an old sale.)
It irritated Pritchard that Anna had not contacted him herself. He was a chemist, after all, and, south of the Grey River at least, the sole supplier of opium to the West Coast dens: concerning a matter of overdose, he was an expert. She ought to have called on him, to solicit his advice. Pritchard did not believe that Anna had tried to end her life: he could not believe it. He was sure that she had been forced to take the drug against her will; either that, or the stuff had been altered with the intention of causing her harm. He had tried to recall the remainder of the lump from the Chinese den, in order to examine it for traces of poison, but Ah Sook was much too furious to indulge this request, having articulated (again via Mannering) his vehement resolve never to conduct business with the chemist again. Pritchard was indifferent to the threat – he had plenty of custom in Hokitika, and the sale of opium made up only a very small percentage of his revenue – but his professional curiosity about the event had not yet been satisfied. He needed, now, to question the girl himself.
The hotel’s proprietor was not present when Pritchard entered the foyer of the Gridiron Hotel, and the space had an empty, rattling feel. Once Pritchard’s eyes became accustomed to the gloom he saw Clinch’s valet, who was leaning against the desk reading an old copy of the Leader, simultaneously mouthing the words and tracing them with his fingertip as he followed each line of print. There was a greasy patch on the countertop where the motion of his finger had polished the wood to a shine. He looked up and gave the chemist a nod as he passed. Pritchard flicked a shilling at him, which the other caught neatly and slapped onto the back of his hand – “Came up tails,” the boy called out, as Pritchard began to ascend the stairs, and Pritchard gave a snort of laughter. He could be brutal, when his spirits were aggrieved, and he was feeling brutal now. The hallway was quiet, but he put his ear against Anna Wetherell’s door and listened for a moment before he knocked.
Harald Nilssen had guessed rightly that Pritchard’s relations with Anna Wetherell were rather more tormented than his own, but he was mistaken to conclude that the chemist was in love with her. In fact Pritchard’s taste in women was thoroughly orthodox, even juvenile. He would sooner be inclined to fall for a dairymaid than for a whore – however dull the maid, and however striking the whore. He valued purity and simplicity, plain dress, a soft voice, a tractable will, and a small ambition – which is to say, contrast. His ideal woman would perfectly contrast him: she would be knowable where he was unknowable, composed where he was not. She would be a kind of anchor from above and without; she would be a shaft of light, a comfort, a benediction. Anna Wetherell, with all her excess and intoxication, was too like him. He did not hate her for that, exactly – but he pitied her.
In general Pritchard was close-mouthed on the subject of the fairer sex. He did not enjoy speaking about women with other men, a practice which, in his estimation, was always clownish and braying. He kept his silence, and as a consequence his fellows believed him very well accomplished, and women, when they regarded him, believed him enigmatic and profound. He was not unhandsome, and his trade was a good one: he might have been considered a very eligible bachelor, had he worked a little less, and ventured into society a little more. But Pritchard loathed large groups of mixed company, where every man is required to act as a kind of envoy for his sex, and presents his own advantages playfully, under the scrutiny of the room. Large crowds made him stifled and irritable. He preferred close company, and kept few friends – to whom he was fiercely loyal, as he was loyal to Anna, in his own way. The intimacy that he felt when he was with her owed chiefly to the fact that a man is never obliged to discuss his whores with other men: a whore is a private matter, a meal to be eaten alone. It was this aloneness that he sought in Anna. She was a solitude for him; and when he was with her, he kept her at a distance.
Pritchard had truly loved only once in his life – but it had been sixteen years since Mary Menzies became Mary Firkin, and moved to Georgia to pursue a life of cotton and red earth and (so Pritchard had imagined) an expansive slowness, made of wealth and cloudless skies. Whether she had perished – whether Mr. Firkin, too, was living still – whether she had children, born or lost – whether she had aged well, or aged badly – he did not know. She was Mary Menzies in his mind. When he had last seen her she had been twenty-five, dressed simply in sprigged muslin with her hair gathered in ringlets at her temples, her wrists and fingers unadorned; they were sitting in the window box, saying goodbye.
“Joseph,” she had said (he inscribed it in his pocketbook later, to remember it for all of time), “Joseph, I don’t believe you have ever been at peace with good. It is well you never made love to me. You will remember me fondly now. It would not have been so, otherwise.”
He heard quick steps on the other side of the door.
“Oh, it’s you,” was Anna’s only greeting. She was disappointed: she must have been expecting someone else. Pritchard stepped inside without speaking, and closed the door behind him. Anna moved into the quartered patch of light beneath the window.
She was dressed in mourning, but by the old-fashioned style of the gown (the bell-shaped skirt, the pointed waist) and the faded hue of the cloth, Pritchard guessed it had not been tailored for her new: it must have been a gift, or, more likely, something salvaged. He saw that the hem had been let out: two inches of darker black showed as a stripe against the floor. It was a strange thing to behold a whore in mourning – rather like seeing a dandified cleric, or a child with a moustache; it gave one a sense of confusion, Pritchard thought.
Excerpted from The Luminaries. Copyright © 2013 Eleanor Catton. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.