‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton

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‘There was this large world of rolling time and shifting spaces, and that small, stilled world of horror and unease; they fit inside each other, a sphere within a sphere’.

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton, pg.23

Eleanor Catton’s second novel, The Luminaries, has undoubtedly been one of the most talked about books of 2013. As one of the youngest Booker Prize Winner’s and only the second New Zealander to have won the prize (after Keri Hulme’s The Bone People) I was intrigued to read this 832 page Victorian-esque Sensation novel set in New Zealand during the 1860s gold rush.

‘Disembarking the packet steamer that had conveyed him from Liverpool to Dunedin, [Moody] had cast his gaze skyward, and had felt for the first time the strangeness of where he was. The skies were inverted, the patterns unfamiliar, the Pole Star beneath his feet, quite swallowed. At first he searched for it, stupidly, wanting to measure his present latitude from the incline of his rigid arm, as he had done as a boy, on the other side of the earth. He found Orion – upended, his quiver beneath him, his sword hanging upward from his belt; Canis Major – hanging like a dead dog from a butcher’s hook’.

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton, pg.342-3

The story begins on the evening of the 27 January 1866 – ‘at the end of the world’. Walter Moody has battled through the raging shores that surround the newly built Hokitika town in the South Island’s west coast and arrived safely in the hope that he, too, will make his fortune in the goldfields. On the night of his arrival he unwittingly stumbles across a secret council of twelve men who have gathered to discuss the strange and mysterious events that have taken place in the town just recently, of which they are all, in one way or another, implicated. These involve the disappearance of a wealthy, young man, a whore who has tried to end her life, the death of an alcoholic hermit and the incredible fortune that was found to be in his possession. Moody is drawn in to these separate and disjointed tales (which are helpfully put into a nice, coherent narrative for us, the reader, to understand) and for the first 500 or so pages, I was also drawn into this masterfully written and succinct plot.

It cannot be denied that Catton has seriously thought through and pre-empted every single action, every single sentence and probably every single word of this enormous novel. Despite it’s non-linear narrative, the events that take place in The Luminaries fit together eventually, almost like pieces of a jigsaw. We start with the twelve separate, yet intertwined, tales of the men who are in some way implicated in the non-coincidental series of crimes that sets the novel off in a whirlwind of its own. These narratives take up the majority of the novel and, yet, we are still no closer to solving these mysteries. At first I was contented to move along with the flow of the novel. I found myself increasingly desperate to find out how the disappearance of Emery Staines, the apparent near-suicide of Anna Wetherell, the death of Crosbie Wells and the discovery of his extraordinary fortune all came to be connected. However, as soon as these narratives came to an end, the story jumped forward a few weeks, leaving me stunned and baffled. New characters (or luminaries) appear, new light is given to these discoveries, which we have only just got our head around, and significances are turned on their heads.

I particularly enjoyed the narrative form of The Luminaries. Instead of following the conventional narrative, where small discoveries come to light to eventually reveal the whole truth, Catton defies this style by jumping the narrative time forwards and backwards. This traditional convention of storytelling seems to be gliding smoothly along as Catton starts from the beginning, with the discovery that the recent events that have taken place in Hokitika may have been connected. But then we are taken forward to the impending trial and it is during this trial that the past – what happened in the months leading up to these crimes – re-emerges until it takes over and submerges the rest of the novel to its waning close.

It is this ending that made The Luminaries such an interesting and original novel – I know that some people who have read the book felt dissatisfied by the ending, but it had a certain modernist touch, which made the novel really stand out for me. As one critic said, you will either love it or loathe it. Instead of the long, winding and detailed chapters that consume the majority of the novel, by the end the chapters are barely paragraphs long and they consist mostly of dialogue – the effect is almost like a moon waning. Although we are eventually given the chance to encounter, at first-hand, Emery Staines, Anna Wetherell and Crosbie Wells, of which the whole plot circulates around, it feels as if we are just observers catching a glimpse of these characters through the crack in a door or a glazed window – it is almost as if the light is waning on their story, making it increasingly difficult to work out the truth behind the events that took place. The reader has been deliberately kept on the edge of this circular plot, which is a very frustrating feeling and one that is normally felt in modernist texts. As Moody states earlier in the book: ‘In my experience people are rarely contented to end up where they started’ (pg.395). Is this perhaps a forewarning of what is to come? Is Catton sneakily hinting that The Luminaries is just one circular plot with no beginning and no end?

I think this will definitely be a book that I will come back to again, if only to try and understand more of the intricacies of the plot and the link to the astrological charts (0f which I know very little). I feel as if Catton’s novel was very cleverly executed and there is still more to be gained from a second reading that has passed me by first time round.

I also have Eleanor Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsals, on my bookshelf waiting to be read, which I will, no doubt, pick up at some point in the new year.

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3 Replies to “‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton”

  1. If I didn’t want to read the book before, I definitely do now. I particularly like your description of the effect of the change in writing style as ‘almost like a moon waning’. Sounds like a brilliant, if rather dense, read. Thanks for sharing!

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