In the opening scene of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rooney’s main character, Alice, is having a drink at a hotel bar with a man named Felix, whom she has met online. Afterward, when they return to Alice’s house, Alice reveals that she is a novelist. “What kind of people do you write about, people like you?” Felix asks. The tone of the question is difficult to fix. Is it contemptuous? Appreciative? Is he flirting or insulting her? Alice’s response is similarly, deliberately vague:

She looked at him calmly, as if to tell him something: that she understood his game, perhaps, and that she would even let him win it, as long as he played nicely. What kind of person do you think I am? she said.

The game is self-referential, a sly bit of foreplay in a novel about the difficulties of knowing what kind of person any individual is—of understanding the relationship between a type, or a class of person, and the character who embodies it. This difficulty is everywhere present in Rooney’s novel, but it especially frames her characters’ conversations with each other. In e-mails, Alice’s best friend, Eileen, makes frequent reference to “people like us” and, in describing herself, uses the phrase “the kind of person”: “I just feel like the kind of person whose life partner would fall out of love with them after several years, and I can’t find a way not to be that kind of person anymore.” What kind of person is that, we might wonder, other than a character like Eileen? Sometimes the characters try to anchor themselves to a more definitive type by identifying as “a difficult and sad person,” “a psychologically robust person,” “a good person,” “a special person.” Other times they engage in debates about the appropriate ways of classifying others: as “ordinary people,” “average people,” “bad people,” “evil people,” “middle-aged people,” “young people,” “single people,” “bisexual people,” “people born into poor families, women, people of color,” “people born into rich families, men, white people.” Always, the tone of these conversations proves difficult to fix. What begins in earnest, as a rueful, penitent, or self-flagellating judgment, often ends in mockery. What kind of conversations are these? Ironic ones, we might conclude.

Conversations about character and type abound in contemporary realist novels, ranging from Rooney’s Beautiful World, Normal People, and Conversations with Friends to Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot and Either/Or, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, and Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood. Although most of these novels have been widely praised, they have also incited a peculiarly agitated response among many critics, who have reproached the creators of these conversations (especially Rooney) for their moral simplicity, their idle politics, their sexual naiveté, and their banal neuroses; for the slight touch of stupidity that attends their language of type, whether moral (good/bad), political (liberal/Marxist), economic (working-class/middle-class), psychological (normal/traumatized), or sexual (straight/queer); and above all for how they seem to abandon character to the social and political determinants of history, refusing to plunge into the “full murk of human motivation,” as one critic writes. The results, allegedly, are blanched, lifeless novels, characterized by minimalism of description, coolness of tone, humorlessness of style, and wobbliness of genre—not quite fact, not quite fiction.

Yet a novel like Rooney’s is interesting precisely because it troubles certain received and, indeed, narcissistic ideas about what a fictional character ought to be. A character, many insist, should be an individual like us, a person whose surfaces may be encrusted with the cultural detritus of the present but whose depths are sanctified by complexity, by a sense of mystery, and by that venerable shibboleth, personality. To give up on “the odd angularities of personality,” “the fruitful fiction of personality,” “the quiddity of a character’s experience,” and “the humanizing quality” of “actual individual existence” is, according to critics, for the novel to fail the basic test of realism.1 “By the time we see one another again I’ll have a really amazing personality,” Alice jokes to Eileen. We can hear in her joke a skepticism or perhaps a boredom with personality as the arbiter of anything. Why should an amazing personality make a character worthy of our attention or more real? Just how amazing do any of us believe we are?

If we are in on Rooney’s joke, we realize that there is a world of difference between appealing to type didactically, to encourage morally or politically “good” behavior, and appealing to it analytically. “A great amount of our discourse is devoted to sorting individuals into their proper groups, which is to say, giving them their proper moral reckoning,” Eileen observes. The game played by Rooney and novelists like her is a supremely intelligent critique of our discourse, not a symptom of its sanctimony. We can play it, too, by letting these novels teach us how to read them alongside the rich history of character in the realist novel.


Typicality is an old problem, perhaps the oldest of them all for the novel. The best articulation of it can be found in Catherine Gallagher’s tremendous essay “George Eliot: Immanent Victorian,” published almost twenty years ago.2 Since the eighteenth century, Gallagher argues, the novel has been legible to its readers as a series of fictional utterances about imaginary beings, as opposed to a series of libelous claims about people whom the author knows in her actual life. The distinction between fiction and reality can be drawn with confidence because the novel engages in “the creation of instances, rather than their mere selection, to illustrate a class of persons.” These classes of people—what Henry Fielding called “species,” Henry James “specimens,” and Eliot “types”—are the abstract entities derived from examples of flesh-and-blood people; at the same time, the abstraction serves as the blueprint from which specific characters are created. Type is a marvelous double-hinged mechanism, with similar but opposite relations to real people and fictional characters. Swing it to one side, and it binds the novel to the world; swing it to the other, and it frees the novel from it.

Consider some familiar literary types: the cuckold, from Charles Bovary to Leopold Bloom; the spinster, from Miss Havisham to Lolly Willowes; the rake, from Mr. B to Mr. Grey; and, indeed, the good person, from Dorothea Brooke to Rooney’s Alice and Eileen. All of these types have real-life referents, or, as Gallagher puts it, “the thing-in-the-world” that grounds the abstract figure; we can all name the cuckolds and spinsters we know and love. But something curious happens when a type becomes embodied by a character. She begins to impart to her species an immaterial heft, an irrepressible vitality cultivated through the novel’s sensuous descriptions of her face and figure; its energetic similizing and analogizing; its “softening and hardening from instances to generalities and back again,” Gallagher writes. Characters may refer to types, but the fictionality of the novel ensures that characters cannot be reduced to them. It is in their irreducibility that characters most resemble real people.

Yet in the century and a half since Eliot’s novels were published, the relationship between people, characters, and types has eroded, worn down by two opposing forces that have shaped how we come to know individuals in the public sphere. On the one hand, the intensive bureaucratic organization and surveillance of life has turned into a culture of insistent particularity. The spread of technologies by which individuals can be tracked and the activities by which they can be categorized—browsing, searching, shopping, sharing—means that people are better known now than ever before, in ways that are automated in nature but appear intensely personalized, calibrated to a unique digital footprint. As Beautiful World makes clear, the illusion of personalization has been exacerbated over the past two decades by the bizarre alchemy of social media—its freakish, indiscriminate offering of publicity to all who seek it, and its illusory promise that one can know intimately people who are, in fact, complete strangers. “They really cannot tell the difference between someone they have heard of, and someone they personally know,” Alice complains about her online followers to Eileen. “And they believe that the feelings they have about this person they imagine me to be—intimacy, resentment, hatred, pity—are as real as the feelings they have about their own friends.”

On the other hand, this personalization is countered by the increasingly homogenous nature of cultural production and consumption—or, as Eileen puts it to Alice, “all these cheap clothes and imported foods and plastic containers” made under conditions of exploitation and purchased with a sense of futility, ennui, or despair. Now, in the bourgeois twenty-first-century Anglo-American novel, everyone seems to look and sound the same—the same brands and bags, the same ideas and idioms, the same predictably outré sexual appetites, the same alienation, the same unexceptional postures of cultural exceptionalism. And again, in the past several decades, this sameness has been reaffirmed by the influence of social media’s free-floating, orphaned discourses—in their reified form, “The Discourse”—on individual perception and expression. “It has become normal in my life, for example, to send text messages like the following: tillerson out at state lmaoooo,” Eileen writes in an e-mail. “It just strikes me that it really shouldn’t be normal to send texts like that.” A person can share everything with everyone, but what she shares signifies too easily—“lmaoooo” is, I suspect, legible to all—and so is entirely generic.


As our ways of knowing people have grown at once personalized and impersonal, more discrete and more uniform, the logic of type has become harder to salvage. How to derive specific types when individuals in the world appear as both anonymous and conspicuous, opaque and transparent, strange and intimate, fictional and factual? How to deduce characters from types amid the bewildering paradoxes of the present?

These are the questions that Beautiful World asks and answers with a thoroughgoing commitment to Romantic irony. For the first two thirds of the novel, its chapters alternate between third-person narration and Eileen and Alice’s first-person e-mails. The third-person narration is distant, formal, even formulaic. Chapters open with precise time markers (“At twenty past twelve on a Wednesday,” “It was three o’clock in the afternoon on a Thursday”), followed by physical descriptions of the characters and stiff, comically estranged accounts of their interactions with their phones, computers, and platforms: “She glanced at the screen of her phone, on which was displayed a messaging interface.” “Opening a private browser window on her laptop, the woman accessed a social media website.” It is as if an alien had set out to describe what human beings did all day long with their eyes and hands.

Motives and thoughts remain deliberately obscure. Alice and Eileen, as well as their respective love interests, Felix and Simon, only act “as if”: “She looked outside now at the sunset as if it were of interest to her.” Their reactions only “seem” to indicate their feelings: “Toward the end of her remarks she seemed to have become slightly nervous”; “She seemed to have recognized a kind of challenge or even a repudiation in his tone.” The resonance between what is uttered and what is implied or inferred, between gesture and intent, is muffled by a narrator who hangs a thick curtain around the characters’ minds and refuses to peek behind it. Of Eileen, the narrator observes, “Nothing changed in her outward relationship to the world that would allow an observer to determine what she felt about what she saw.” Readers may speculate, but their speculations would be nothing more than projections, no different from the intimacy imagined by Alice’s online followers.

In contrast to the distant, constrained voice of the third-person narration, Alice and Eileen’s e-mails appear as undiluted extensions of their thoughts and feelings. But as any devoted reader of epistolary fiction knows, the letters between friends and lovers partake in exaggerations and omissions, in grandstanding and hypocrisy. They are littered with little white lies. They ventriloquize other peoples’ observations and arguments. We need only compare events as they are described in the sections of third-person narration to the e-mails to conclude that the latter are not simply the women’s thoughts overheard. The girls’ e-mails might air their contempt for imported foods and plastic containers, but the next chapter opens in the convenience store, where we find Alice watching Felix consider which plastic container of which imported foods to purchase.

How are we to understand what kinds of people these characters are when we are not permitted access to their innermost thoughts and true feelings? More important, what is the point of understanding them—or anyone, for that matter? What is the point, as Alice puts it in an e-mail to Eileen, of “preserving something of my—otherwise almost worthless, or even entirely worthless—existence on this rapidly degenerating planet…?” This feeling of worthlessness is not primarily self-hatred born of family trauma, as it was in Rooney’s earlier novels. It is instead a product of how contemporary culture compels us to experience people and their personalities as either singular or generic, as a celebrity or a mere person. Of losing her virginity in a disappointing, if not exactly traumatic, sexual encounter, Eileen writes, with no elaboration, “I’ve always felt like exactly the kind of person that would happen to.” Alice, in turns, complains about the “demoralizing specificity” of the fame she has acquired as a celebrity writer: “I keep encountering this person, who is myself, and I hate her with all my energy. I hate her ways of expressing herself, I hate her appearance, and I hate her opinions about everything.”

In Beautiful World, we can come to know the characters only by developing a feeling for what they mean to each other. At first this seems impossible. “Alice said that Eileen was a genius and a pearl beyond price,” the narrator observes. “Eileen said that Alice was an iconoclast and a true original.” The tone of these statements should strike us as parodic, but the time we spend in the women’s company rubs the edge off the parody. The characters become interesting by virtue of the time and the attention that the novel expends on them, which is, tautologically, an extension of the time and the attention the novel tells us that they expend on each other. This attention is not justified by their attention-seeking behavior. Nor is it justified by “any special personal qualities pertaining to either of us, nor even the particular combination of our individual personalities,” Eileen writes to Alice. Rather it is “the method by which we relate to one another—or the absence of method.” The method of relation, or the absence of method—call it friendship, call it intimacy, or even love—is enacted by the evolving narrative style of Beautiful World. The cool third-person narration begins to discard its feints and its formulas; to soften and warm slowly, and then all at once. In the twenty-third chapter, which takes place at Eileen’s sister’s wedding, the narrative suddenly and shockingly plunges us into Eileen’s family’s memories of their shared life: “Lola remembered paddling in the sea…”; “Eileen was thinking also of childhood…”; “Mary too was thinking of her childhood….” The sentences turn into long, eddying, Joycean streams of consciousness. An outpouring of simile, absent until now, transforms the characters whose faces and figures we have encountered only in stilted terms into natural beauties. We see Eileen, “with her slim white arms like reeds, like branches,” her “head held aloft on her long neck like a flower,” “her hands lying in her lap, white like doves.” But this is all a teaser for the main event. It is not the wedding, but a single, absorbed, and climactic look that Eileen and Simon share outside the church, just after the ceremony:

He remembered when she was born, the Lydons’ new baby, and the first time he was allowed to see her, the red wrinkled face more like an old creature than something new, baby Eileen, and his parents said he was always asking for a sister after that, not just any sibling, a sister, like what Lola had. She remembered him too, the older boy who went to a different school, lively, intelligent, with those strange seizures he suffered from, an object of sympathy among the adults, which made him, though he was a beautiful child, somehow freakish.

This look between Simon and Eileen is foreshadowed by a look between Alice and Felix after their first intimate conversation: “They kept looking, and did not break off, as if the act of looking was more important than what they could see.” The earlier chapter thematizes the act of looking, but this one dramatizes it. It extends the moment by excavating, over four pages of ricocheting memories, “their phone calls, the messages they wrote to one another, their jealousies, the years of looks, suppressed smiles, their dictionary of little touches.” In Eileen and Simon’s sustained gaze, in the novel’s dilated moment, we glimpse their history of thinking and feeling and remembering—a history that suffuses the mere fact of each character’s existence with an almost miraculous meaning for the other. We, in turn, are granted partial access to these mere people, to the beautiful world behind the curtain onto which the novel has projected their gestures and utterances. Or rather, we enjoy an intimacy with the novel, which mediates our access to the minds of its characters and the mind of its author.

Through its mingled beauty and irony, the narrating voice develops a sense of nearness. It remains in the third person, but presses closer, bearing the possibility of revelation, of rapture. Now it lets the characters speak their thoughts, just as Henry James lets us hear the thoughts of his characters in the second half of The Golden Bowl. (“Have you ever read such a juicy novel??” Eileen asks Alice in an e-mail.) Now at the end of each chapter, when the narrative detaches from the characters and the glow of their devices, it floats for a sentence or two over the landscape: “Outside, astronomical twilight. Crescent moon hanging low over the dark water. Tide returning now with a faint repeating rush over the sand.” It shows us the light, the waves, and the shore of Ireland not through the eyes of a particular person, but through an unpeopled, unanchored, shared vision. The overall effect is like looking at a row of letters through lenses of an incrementally stronger resolution—a change powerful enough to sense, but subtle enough to doubt.

In the world that gradually comes into focus, what matters is not what kind of person one is. What matters is how one learns to apprehend people, places, and objects, and how one creates meaning from these flickering perceptions. “Was I really like that once?” Eileen wonders in an e-mail to Alice. “A person capable of dropping down into the most fleeting of impressions, and dilating them somehow, dwelling inside them, and finding riches and beauty there.” The novel does not answer Eileen’s question outright. Rather, it teaches us to see how the mundane acts of reading, writing, working, shopping, cooking, drinking, traveling, and having sex might linger in the eyes of a person like her. This spiritualism enchants the world without redeeming its ravages. Rooney’s techniques of narration—old, new, borrowed, and, at moments, hotly, breathtakingly blue—remind us that this is the novel’s ethical project: the desirous, worldly, ironic transubstantiation of ideas about who ordinary people are into characters whom we know, and whom we know better by virtue of how carefully we attend to their visions. This is what it means to be a good person in a beautiful world.

Whereas Beautiful World is a novel of subtle Romantic irony, Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood is an outlandish satire of Victorian psychological realism; together they define the far points of a continuum on which we can locate much contemporary fiction. Birnam Wood is set in and around an old sheep farm in the town of Thorndike, New Zealand, at the base of the fictional Korowai Mountains. The farm, which belongs to the prosperous Sir Owen Darvish and his wife, Jill, has been cut off from the town by a mysterious landslide. Its sudden isolation makes it attractive to twenty-nine-year-old Mira, the charismatic founder of Birnam Wood, a guerrilla gardening collective whose members include her old flame, Tony, and her envious friend, Shelley. When Mira goes to the farm, she encounters Robert Lemoine, a drone manufacturer who, we learn, has purchased the Darvish property as a front for his illegal extraction of rare minerals from the mountainside—the real cause of the landslide. When he discovers Mira snooping around, he offers to invest in the collective, turning it into a front for his front. The novel carefully traces the thoughts and actions of these six characters as they operate at cross-purposes, spying on, betraying, and ultimately destroying one another.

This summary, however, fails to capture the narrative voice of Birnam Wood, which does not match the drama of its plot. The six characters are each presented to us with the no-nonsense, practiced efficiency of a profile—name, age, social function. “Like all self-mythologizing rebels,” Mira prefers “enemies to rivals, and often turned her rivals into enemies, the better to disdain them as secret agents of the status quo.” Shelley is Mira’s “sensible, dependable, predictable sidekick,” a role she plays with suppressed resentment, “not as a disciple or a fanatic, but as a foil.” Tony, who has returned to New Zealand after a disastrous attempt to teach English in South America, is “used to thinking of himself in insurrectionary terms.” His decision to start investigating Lemoine’s arrangement with the Darvishes arises from his desire to keep thinking of himself as a freedom fighter. But the insurrectionary is the opposite of the type that others perceive Tony to be: “yet another entitled white man,” “a symptom representing him as yet another tool of the oppressor class,” more interested in being the main character of his own story than in telling the stories of others.

The rebel and the conformist, the hero and the sidekick, the insurrectionary and the oppressor—the pairs that structure Birnam Wood are more conventional than Beautiful World’s opposition of the mere person and the celebrity. This is not surprising coming from a novelist whose last novel, the Booker-winning The Luminaries, opened with a “Character Chart” based on astrology. The force behind the typological thinking in Birnam Wood is as distant from Mira’s, Shelley’s, and Tony’s lives as the stars and planets and yet also closer: “The disruptors, the technological imperialists, the metadata millenarians and stokers of popular feeling,” Catton writes, have managed, “invisibly and hitherto impossibly, to manufacture the authentic, the world’s most influential brand. A new vocabulary had come into force.” This is not the language of morality, which, as her characters intuit, is too passé for the modern world. Tony explains:

To use words like good and evil, or not even evil, just good and bad, when it comes to people’s behavior, or their lifestyle choices, or their forms of self-expression—their freedom—that’s, like, totally taboo.

Rather, authenticity relies on the subtler language of categorizing and sorting people into their true types, an idiom so widely and deeply ingrained that it is inseparable from each character’s consciousness.

Catton layers this language everywhere: in the characters’ backstories and memories, in the language they use to describe themselves and evaluate one another. Shelley is the daughter of a recruitment consultant, a woman “who believed that the world’s population could be divided into those with a gift for sales and those with a gift for service; most people, she was fond of remarking, were employed against their type.” Mira is the foremost critic of Shelley’s mother, yet her own mind is so keyed to thinking typologically that she needs no consultant to prompt it. “‘Do you think there are two different types of people, or just one?” she asks Shelley. Watching an interview with Owen Darvish, Mira notes how “he played expertly to type,” Catton writes, “fielding questions in a manner that was bluff and self-effacing, and asserting, when asked about his politics, that he had none at all.”

The characters’ moral and political conversations are filtered through a narrative voice that is eloquent and extravagant and circulates seamlessly among the characters, which is part of the point of Catton’s brilliant satire. Her characters insist on their differences from one another, yet their thoughts have the same recursive rhythm; the same ironic mixture of anxiety and narcissism; the same incessant fretting about whether or not they are, as Mira worries, clichés; and the same hope that they are, because there is “a kind of safety in abstraction,” as Shelley concludes. The relentless constancy of their minds prompts us to search their faces and figures for crucial distinctions, but we will find none: in Birnam Wood, characters are almost entirely disembodied. We learn nothing about the color of Mira’s hair, or the angle of Shelley’s nose, and we learn only that Tony has a beard. Catton’s mingling of physiological minimalism and psychological maximalism develops her characters by making them overfamiliar, redundant even. Anything we learn about Mira, Shelley, and Tony only ornaments what we already know—what we believe we have always known—about people like them.

Is there an outside to Catton’s satire? At first, one looks to Lemoine, who has knowingly cultivated himself as a type with a lucrative history in American genre fiction: a hot, rich control freak. “This was the impression that Lemoine had taken pains to create,” Catton writes. “After that, one could virtually do as one pleased.” Through the middle of the novel, Lemoine’s consciousness of how type works, his ability to manipulate its logic without buying into it, seems to grant him a unique freedom in the world of the novel. When he brings the collective to the Darvish property, he establishes himself as the charismatic epicenter, the only character toward whom the reader can feel anything akin to desire. The Darvishes note dryly that Lemoine has seen one too many James Bond films, and they are right. If the narcissism of Tony, Shelley, and Mira is tortured, Lemoine’s is unabashed. “He loved to wonder at his own motivations, to marvel at his own eccentric mind, to evaluate himself in the second person, and then, even more deliciously, in the third.” He loves to fly in his little plane, because “he achieved, at altitude, a profound sense of his own proportion, of the sheer scale of everything he could be.” He hacks Mira’s phone and believes that he can possess her innermost thoughts: “As he conjured her deliciously inside himself, he realized, all at once, that she would be his acquisition.”

It is tempting to claim that Catton’s free indirect discourse has an affinity with Lemoine’s sensibilities: his desire for control, his obsession with plotting, his erotics of surveillance, his hankering for a bird’s-eye view. But this is both an insufficiently ambitious and insufficiently perverse description of Birnam Wood, which depicts the novel as an instrument superior to Lemoine’s military-grade technology. Much to Lemoine’s irritation, the drones often do not work. When they do, they are not sensitive enough to the physical details of the characters’ movements, to the heat that comes off their bodies—Catton’s choice not to incarnate her characters becomes repurposed as the drones’ failure to track Tony, Mira, and Shelley as they move around the property. Lemoine’s attempts to monitor their phones are thwarted; they simply fail to charge them or turn them off. And Shelley and Mira, who are both attracted to Lemoine, question whether he can conjure them in his mind, deliciously or otherwise. “It’s like he knew what I was thinking,” Shelly thinks of Lemoine, but quickly revises her thought to, “It’s like he wanted me to think that he knew what I was thinking.” The difference between actually knowing people and merely wanting them to think that you know them emerges as the difference between the novel’s and the Internet’s methods of surveillance.

Underneath his cover, Lemoine, it turns out, is a different type: a techno-humanist, convinced that spying on the thoughts and chronicling the movements of everyone will let him control how his plot—and, by extension, the novel’s—plays out. To a point, what he expects will happen does happen. He expects that Mira’s self-aggrandizement will lead her to bring Birnam Wood to him, and so she does. He expects that, once they arrive, Shelley’s insecurity will lead her to betray Mira, and so she does, by sleeping with Lemoine and usurping Mira’s position as leader. He expects that Tony’s savior complex will lead him to seek his own fame, conducting his investigation recklessly and at the expense of everyone’s safety, as indeed he does.

But if Lemoine could have predicted all this, he could not have predicted how his plans would be thwarted by a character who is not on his or anyone else’s radar, except for the novelist’s. That character is Lady Jill Darvish, who has been idly throwing dinner parties in Wellington, and who heads to the Darvish farm when she grows suspicious of Lemoine. She is characterized by her adherence to the world’s oldest ideology of type—that men and women “were like two different species”—and “that women’s minds were subtler than men’s, more flexible, more capacious, more resilient.” When she descends on the farm, she appears as a good, powerful woman, ready to triumph over a bad man—but only for a moment, before her spontaneity is exposed as an illusion, one permitted to her by the novelist.

As one typical and type-minded character does battle with another, we realize that there exists no outside to type; no escape from this world into a beautiful one of unique perception and expression. The final events of Birnam Wood—a murder, a cover-up, a string of murders, the beginning of a fire—send us back to its opening landslide with a sudden shock of recognition. This is not, at its heart, a realist novel. It is a thriller, engineered to run its course like a train on its track. Upon examination, its characters turn out to be but wooden dummies in the seats, doing a fantastic imitation of human beings. One feels no deep sense of loss when they are discarded. Despite our intimacy with the innermost workings of their minds, despite how intensely they have engaged our vacillating feelings of sympathy and contempt, they become, in the end, as disposable as the extras in a Bond film. We know them well enough to know that there is nothing more to know. Each has played perfectly to type on the terms set by Birnam Wood.

Is the shrug and sigh of satisfaction that greets the ending a failure of Catton’s style? On the contrary: it is a success. She is not a modern Romantic like Rooney. She is a Dickensian craftswoman, the guardian of a humble knowledge—an intuition for scale, a feel for efficient plotting, an intimacy with voice—that is neither cold nor technical, but “personal and anecdotal,” as Mira describes the expert gardener. Catton tends to a character here, prunes a subplot there. Hers is a patient operation—the grafting and planting and spreading of the novel’s world, until, feeling it start to close in on itself, she clears away its edges and helps her characters die.