Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries


I’m a bit wary of award winning literary novels, usually finding myself bewildered by the glacial pace and the sense that terribly sophisticated insights into human nature are sailing several miles over my head whenever I attempt to give one a go. I did however find myself becoming more and more fascinated by Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries the deeper I got into it, to the extent that I wanted to read it again as soon as I’d finished it, and for an 800 page doorstop of a book like this that’s pretty impressive.

The Luminaries is a historical novel, set in a remote New Zealand gold-mining settlement in 1866 where a chain of mysterious and possibly nefarious events have aroused concern among certain of the community’s professional men. There’s a death, a disappearance, a fraud, an opium overdose and sundry other vendettas and loyalties to be considered and to this end a meeting has been called in the parlour of a hotel, a meeting that is inadvertently interrupted by a new arrival in town. Sensing that this smart, discreet and intelligent young man might prove a useful neutral sounding board the motley fellowship consent to relate to him their various involvements in and viewpoints on the situation and gradually a bigger picture starts to emerge. Over the course of the next two months other dramatic incidents thicken the plot further: a seance, a court case and at least one crime of passion. It’s all pretty complicated, with particular events often being multiply reported from different points of view, but the strands eventually weave together delightfully and logically, and my slight confusion at the end about some of the finer detail is certainly down to me skimming some of the set-up chapters rather than any failure of Catton.

The novel reminded me in quite a few ways of Wilkie Collins, particularly The Moonstone, though there’s much less overt comedy here and probably not so much interest in satirising social hierarchies. What Catton brings instead is a formidable mastery of structure: while the first, long, section feels slightly rambly it becomes clear as you press on that the drawstrings on the drama are being incrementally tightened, with action and revelation taking more and more precedence over description and atmosphere with every new chapter. Each of the twelve sections is shorter than the one before, in imitation of a waning moon, and there’s also a handy character chart whereby all the main players are associated with either an astrological sign or a celestial body – while it’s not necessary to take any notice of this in order to read or understand the book it certainly helps as an organising principle and as a way of keeping track of who’s who among the many characters (it also makes sense of the somewhat cryptic chapter titles). Her writing style is clear and fluent, and while it’s as convincing as it needs to be as a genuine nineteenth century confection it never distracts by lapsing into pastiche.

In some ways its effect is similar to dense, multi-layered films like Magnolia or The Prestige or Nashville in that a second viewing in each of those cases really helped to clarify and cast light on a whole bunch of complicated and intricate connections and relationships. I’m not a particularly patient reader and have a bad habit of speeding carelessly through passages that seem overly descriptive and mood-setting but by the closing sections of this book I wanted to make sure I paid close attention to every detail, such was the care and ingenuity the author had put into her precise and pleasingly labyrinthine plotting. This is a book to take with you if you ever have to spend a week or two somewhere remote, rainy and lacking internet access – while it’s slow to get going it will repay the dedicated reader who can resist distraction handsomely.

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