The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

At 6:00 pm this evening, the Governor General of Canada, David Johnston, will be presenting 14 winners with literary awards. Eleanor Catton will be among the recipients of Canada’s highest literary honour for her historical suspense novel The Luminaries. The 28-year-old author has been making headlines around the world, but not just for her GG win. Six weeks ago, Catton won the much-coveted Man Booker Prize. She was the youngest winner for the longest novel (832 pages) in its history.

Catton was born in London, Ontario, where she lived until she was six while her father completed his PhD at the University of Western Ontario, but she grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand. Writing fiction is a lifelong endeavour, and the world is anxious to know how Catton managed to become such an exemplary writer at such a young age. She has said on repeated occasions that she has been writing for as long as she can remember and credits her mother, a librarian, for always keeping her with a fresh supply of books. Four years ago, Catton penned her debut novel The Rehearsal, which was also her Master’s thesis. A sex scandal at a high school formed the basis of the story, which received a number of awards, including the First Novel Award.

A departure from her previous novel, The Luminaries takes place in Hokitika, a gold-rush town on the west coast of New Zealand’s south island in the 1860s. On a dark and stormy January evening, Walter Moody steps off a shipwreck and walks into the first Hokitika hotel he finds. He has come, like other European prospectors and Chinese labourers, to start afresh and seek his fortune in the New Zealand goldfields. Moody has had a deeply unsettling experience aboard the barque Godspeed, and is still shaken when he enters the hotel. There, he finds himself in the midst of 12 men who are holding an informal meeting about a series of unexplained events that involve a drugged prostitute found unconscious in the street, a wealthy young man who has disappeared and a fortune in gold found in the home of a hermit who has died under suspicious circumstances.

The reader must comb through multiple layers of speculation, contradiction and fact to uncover the reasons for these three events and the connection between them. In the course of this highly complex novel, the reader meets 20 characters that include a whoremonger, a chaplain, a greenstone hunter (the sole Maori character), an opium addict, a fortune-teller, a jailer, a politician and a former convict. Every character is privy to a piece of information that no one else knows. Gold is concealed in the seams of gowns, identities are stolen and fortunes are lost. Then, there is the astrology-based structure with charts at the start of each of the book’s sections. Catton has assigned personality traits that are stereotypical of one zodiac to each of the 12 men, while 7 other characters are said to have planetary influences.

The Luminaries reads like a Victorian novel, reminiscent of Dickens or Collins. The writing is beautiful, compelling and detailed, with so much keen insight that it is hard to imagine that the author is under the age of 30. There are multiple narrative threads, but the story under Catton’s deft hand never becomes unwieldy. At times, however, the many details are hard to keep straight. Fortunately each chapter starts with an epigraph with the names of characters who are to appear, making it easier to go back and check details. This is not a book to read on your commute to work. Instead, it is best enjoyed when you can read for hours at a time.

The narrative threads may not always be tied up perfectly, but there are plenty of wonderfully written distractions to make you quickly forget. Towards the end of the book, the epigraphs may tell too much of the story, but the author nevertheless serves up a highly satisfying ending. The Luminaries is a booklover`s novel.

Eleanor Catton’s abilities as a writer are astounding. If this is what she produces at age 28 then I look forward to what she will write at 50, when most writers are just hitting their stride. She is a shooting star in the literary firmament and a more than worthy recipient of the Governor General’s Award for fiction.

Other reviews
Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser
World of Glass by Jocelyne Dubois
5 Broken Cameras by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
Detropia by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Finding Dawn by Christine Welch
The Fruit Hunters by Yung Chang

This has been cross-posted at Rover Arts.



Best DFW Knee Doctor Dr Alex Schnee | April 24, 2014 at 8:02 PM

The style is Victorian, but if you can cope with that then indulge yourself in this elaborate web of personalities. Never once do you lose the plot. Eleanor Catton skilfully helps each character to pass the tale from one to the other like a cats cradle. Excellent big read. Loved it.

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