The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

28th Oct 2013

The Luminaries
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries has fast become the book on everyone’s lips: not only the Man Booker 2013 winner, but the second in as many years that has been woman-penned, with Catton being the youngest ever recipient of the award.

It’s shot to the top of many a reader’s wish list, but be warned: at 832 pages long, it’s not the sort of thing you’ll want to rush through in a weekend just to say you’ve read it.

Not only is this a long book, it’s an intricately detailed feast of a tale that will take you many hours to unravel – and you’ll be doing so long after you’ve read the final word.

Set in 1866 at the heart of the New Zealand goldfields, the story centres around a series of unexplainable occurrences that take place in one night: a woman turns up half-dead, and a man is found… well, entirely dead, and another man goes missing, all in the most mysterious of circumstances.

Walter Moody stumbles upon thirteen men whose lives are weaved together by these occurrences, and who are intent upon solving the riddle that was 14th January, 1866.

The book is ‘set’ in 1886, but more than that this book lives and breathes every inch of that time. Eleanor Catton has explained that she read a multitude of literature from this period, to truly learn the ways and words of its inhabitants, and this is blindingly obvious.

From the very first page you are simply there, in the intemperate weather, stunning landscape and hungry atmosphere of a hastily assembled New Zealand gold mining town. Indeed, this gold shimmers throughout the book, tying each character to the other inextricably.

From the very first page you are simply there, in the intemperate weather, stunning landscape and hungry atmosphere of a hastily assembled New Zealand gold mining town.It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, balancing this intoxicatingly vivid world without becoming verbose, and there are times when Catton wobbles – particularly at the very beginning and end of the book – but despite the almighty length of this novel, the fact that she manages this complex feat almost entirely is nothing short of miraculous.

This has a lot to do with her writing style. Eleanor Catton possesses a rare gift for complete fluidity of prose, so much so that even people as easily distracted as me could lose themselves in page after page, chapter after chapter, without once losing concentration.

Nowhere is this more apparent that in the subtle movements of her characters. One look, movement, or change of expression perfectly illustrates their thoughts – there are certainly no wasted words here.

And the dialogue… well, the dialogue is something else. So natural, it flows effortlessly, and you lose yourself to the voices inside your head. Perhaps this has something to do with Catton’s characters – a frankly massive motley crew of faces, to each of which she skillfully attaches both definition and vulnerability. Delving in to each of their pasts is at times frustrating (it is 832 pages, after all), but the end result is almost universally worth it.

The length is of course the one sticking point, the biggest test of the novel, but necessary to achieving unity amongst such huge diversity of plot and characters. It’s also a marker of Catton’s ingenuity, both as the creator of the most elaborate plot I’ve read in years, and as a storyteller, teasing every last intrigue out of her tale.

What unifies this mammoth read is the underlying astrology theme. Each chapter marks a movement in the stars, adding a healthy dollop of fantasy throughout, with some questions left unanswered and some occurrences that can’t or won’t be explained.

With this in mind, what starts as a mystery ends up as so much more, and it takes until the end of the book to realise just how significant this star-crossed motif is to some of the characters.

The Luminaries is the sort of book you’d surely recommend to anyone, but you couldn’t help but add a disclaimer first. A story that demands your concentration and that devours your mind as much as your mind devours it, The Luminaries will yield a great deal of satisfaction… eventually. Literary gold.