[11 March 2014]
“I think the question you out to be asking, my dear, is not how much; it is who, and why,” says one character 230 pages into Eleanor Catton’s enormous 800-plus page novel, The Luminaries. And it is a very apropos quote. The novel, really an epic, is part Victorian chamber mystery, part courtroom drama, and much, much more. Catton has made history with this book: she was the youngest winner, at the age of 28, of the Man Booker Prize last year, and The Luminaries made history for being the longest work to ever win the prize in its some 45 year history. If that wasn’t enough Catton, who was born in Canada but raised in New Zealand, has won Canada’s Governor’s General Literary Award for fiction with the work.
Indeed, The Luminaries is a startling piece of writing from such a young writer. Catton has clearly done her research into the setting, the New Zealand gold fields of the 1860s, and writes with such a precise and powerful vision that, if you’re an author in your 20s and are trying to write the Great [Insert Country of Origin Here] Novel, you can now stop. Catton has beaten you to it. Outside the likes of Zadie Smith, we may never see such a young novelist performing such a great highwire act, and largely succeeding, as Catton has done here.
The Luminaries is a hard book to summarize, not only because of its sheer length, but because it is so densely plotted that the reader, even if he or she tries a marathon reading session and reads the whole book in a few sittings (which I don’t recommend, as this is a book that needs to marinade in one’s mind), may have trouble following what’s going on. There are 13 major characters, and a handful of minor characters. A pen and paper may be necessary just to follow the intricately woven narrative. In fact, things that come up in the story that seem to be important aren’t dealt with or closed off (if they’re closed off at all; there are a few dangling plot threads) until hundreds of pages later, when even the most astute and attentive readers may struggle to remember what had happened earlier.
Briefly, The Luminaries involves a deceased man, whom everyone presumed destitute, until a very large sum of gold is found in his rural New Zealand cabin. It involves a troubled prostitute with an opium addiction who may or may not have attempted suicide the same night that man’s body was discovered, and a young gold prospector who may be connected to both people who has also disappeared on the very same night.
The story opens with a major scene that takes place in a hotel smoking room where the 13 characters, all men, try to piece together what has happened. A carton of dresses with gold sewn into them plays an important role, as does the intricacies of the shipping and banking businesses of the time period. There is also a séance. Clearly, there is a lot going on with this work of art.
The Luminaries is a novel about a number of things: the status of women in a fairly new colony, the treatment of indigenous (generally, they are respected) and Chinese peoples (generally, they are not) who populate New Zealand of the time, and the addictive nature of drugs and spirits… and more. But maybe the novel is really about outsiders: men and women who have come to New Zealand to strike it rich in the gold fields, and the corruption and abuse that follows whenever anyone tries to stake out a claim, or comes across an outrageous fortune.
All of these characters are trying to find a better life for themselves, and a great deal of them are running from the ghosts of their past, although a great many of them are also facing financial ruin as a result of the scandals gripping the town of Hokitika, a place that is described as being perpetual rainy and gloomy, and a community where few children are among the residents. Just about everyone in the novel, save for a Maori character, has come from somewhere else, only to find that their troubles – even when they take on an assumed name – has, if not quite followed them, then reared their spectre in another form altogether.
The Luminaries is also influenced by astrology and the waning influence of the moon. In fact, the sections of the novel – after a rather lengthy opening chapter that runs on for dozens and dozens of pages without a single page break – get shorter and shorter as the novel progresses, and the reading and the plot tend to move faster and faster the longer you stay with the book. In fact, by novel’s end, the chapters are barely a page long, and the structure of the narrative grows fragmented.
This is where the novel falls a little flat for, as mentioned above, certain elements aren’t tied very well together and, because of the labyrinth of narrative in the first few hundred pages of the book, the effect is, on a whole, not quite satisfying. Still, The Luminaries makes for a powerful read, and one that is affecting for its sense of ambition and narrative risk. What’s more, Catton is able to paint very affecting pictures of the characters and the setting, and you get the sense that many years of research were needed just to get the details down right – though the author admits in the acknowledgements that certain liberties were taken.
The telling nature of Catton’s storytelling is in the way she effectively handles descriptions, such as this one:
What a contrast this young man posed to the Maori in the street. They were rough contemporaries in age, but where Tauwhare had been muscled, tense, and proud, this fellow was languid, even cat-like: he moved with a kind of casual luxury, as though he saw no need to spend his strength on swiftness, and nor did he see any reason to conserve it. He was lean in body. His hair was brown in hue, long, and curly at the tips; he wore it tied in a ribbon at the nape of his neck, in the fashion of a whaler. His face was broad and his eyes spaced widely; his lips were full, his teeth very crooked, and his nose rather large. These features conspired to form an expression that was both honest and nonchalant – and nonchalance is a form of elegance, when it demands much, and declines to reveal its source. Balfour considered him a very elegant young man.
This is an impressive feat to pull off with 13 major characters, as Catton is able to paint a portrait of each individual that stays with you as you read about these characters. They all have individual characteristics that are memorable, and resonate with the reader – though, when some of them disappear for large chunks of the narrative, you may have to go to the helpful list of characters and occupations at the front of the book just to jostle your memory. Catton also shows a deftness of restraint: character deaths happen off the printed page, and are not told about in salacious detail. Here, death leaves little or no legacy behind.
While The Luminaries takes cues from the mystery genre, it is so well crafted that it might inspire Ph. D. thesis dissertations. While the intricacies of the shipping and banking industries of old don’t make for huge compulsion – this is a rather dry subject – there is still enough doublecrossing going on in The Luminaries to more than make up for it. This is a slow boiling thriller of the highest order, and once the “sphere within a sphere”, as the first part of the book is subtitled, begins to reveal itself, and the connections are made quite clear, the whodunit aspect of the story proves satisfying.
Catton has pulled off the most daring of feats: writing a very long historical novel that stands with the very best works of fiction. It’s a reverent and tuneful piece of writing, and it’s clear that The Luminaries is one of the best books of 2013, or possibly for any year, for that matter. This is a book all about the who and the why, and that it generally sorts itself out of the convolutions of its plot is a sterling achievement from someone with many more great epics ahead of her.