Eleanor Catton’s second novel, The Luminaries, opens with the arrival of Scotsman Walter Moody in Hokitika on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island during the gold rush of 1866. A group of twelve men, the eponymous luminaries, are meeting to unravel a complex story involving stolen gold, a vanished man, a dead recluse, and a prostitute’s attempted suicide.
The plot is dauntingly intricate and sustained flawlessly for 832 pages as bits of the story drop into place, supplied by the differing perspectives of each of the luminaries and the novel’s other central characters. Along the way, there are opium dens, sinking ships, long-lost brothers, assumed identities, forged documents and séances. Stories shift and alter in the re-tellings.
The Luminaries is an historical novel, an allegory, a gothic ghost story, a romance, a murder mystery. As historical fiction, the story is told using a range of nineteenth-century literary conventions; there is the idiomatic voice of the omniscient narrator who mediates between the characters and the reader so that we feel a certain intimacy and trust in the voice when we are told,
The full account of what transpired during this last leg of the voyage is Moody’s own, and must be left to him. We think it sufficient to say, at this juncture, that there were eight passengers aboard the Godspeed when she pulled out of the harbour at Dunedin, and by the time the barque landed on the Coast, there were nine. The ninth was not a baby, born in transit, nor was he a stowaway; nor did the ship’s lookout spot him adrift in the water, clinging to some scrap of wreckage, and give him the shout to draw him in.
Then there are the prefacing summaries to each chapter; the Victorian sensibilities of rendering “damned” as “d___d”; the Dickensian scale of the book; the flashbacks and discontinuous narrative; the constant sense of unease akin to that of a Wilkie Collins novel. By all of these means and more, Catton plunges us into her elaborately constructed conceit.
Towards the end of the book, the chapter summaries become longer and longer until they exceed the text of the story in length and provide more narrative information than the increasingly hazy snatches of chapters. For The Luminaries is at once historical and contemporary and Catton uses the form of the book as much as her plot and characters to evoke an overarching feeling of theatricality and artifice, and to raise issues of illumination and concealment, agency and destiny.
Given its length, it is likely that Catton’s novel will be read by many as a download. This may have a bearing on how the book is experienced for its form is as important as its content. An astrological chart precedes each of the twelve sections of the book and each section is proportionately shorter as the book proceeds, from the 360 pages of the opening section to the half page of the closing section, accentuating the sense of dissolution.
The character list at the front of the book is helpful and provides not only names and occupations of the luminaries but also the astrologically-related “influences” of the other so-called “planetary” characters. Only three of the luminaries are not white, middle-aged men and the lack of distinction between these characters’ voices means that it can become difficult to differentiate between some of them. Catton may intend this blurring whereby most of the characterisation is neither flat nor whole, since partiality and indistinctness are at the heart of her story.
There is no doubt that this is a well-crafted and ripping yarn. However, for all its heft, The Luminaries left me feeling it lacks the “weightiness” at the heart of a worthy Man Booker winner. For all the astrology and allusion to fate and fortune, there just isn’t quite enough illumination beyond the plotline.