This took me by surprise in two ways: firstly because of its size and secondly because it was just so enjoyable.
That sounds disparaging but it isn’t meant to be. I read Eleanor Catton’s first novel, ‘The Rehearsal,’ a few years ago and loved it. It’s hazy, opaque, fragmented, and elliptical with deliberately artificial dialogue and an ambiguous plot. I expected ‘the Luminaries’ to be similarly challenging. When I picked up a copy from the bookshop I was taken aback by the size of the book (it’s about 800 pages long) and braced myself to make an effort.
There was none needed because the most important thing to know about ‘The Luminaries’ is that it’s really good fun as well as being faultlessly written. It’s a big, old book to get lost in.
Certainly It has an intricate structure based on astrological charts which may mean something if you understand these things but as far as I can tell they are used mainly for atmosphere and perhaps for the fun of working in a self-imposed form. It has an omniscient narrator who revels in that omniscience, elbowing characters out of the way when their versions of the story don’t measure up in terms of pace and clarity.
In keeping with the idea of star-charts, the characters’ stories form wheels within wheels. Twelve men are gathered in a secret council in a seedy hotel in the Victorian New Zealand gold rush town of Hokitika. They’re disturbed by a thirteenth, Walter Moody. One by one they tell him how they’re connected to a crime, the full significance of which emerges only gradually.
Their stories circle around the events of a single night, each pass filling in further detail and forging closer links. But these twelve stories themselves circle around the stories of the novel’s principal characters and their true relationships remain obscurer even longer.
The characters are richly drawn and the rain-soaked privations of frontier life are fully realised. Brutality, fraud, immorality, drunkenness, drug-addiction are the everyday reality in Hokitika. Nothing is sentimentalised but generosity of spirit wins through, just about.
I loved everything about this novel; it took over the first three days of my holiday. It may not have been what I was expecting, but surprises like this are always very welcome.