You have to imagine a big chest in the corner of the attic, containing the inscription: Plot Fireworks: Handle With Care! And then you picture Eleanor Catton, that reckless smartie-pants, coming along with a fistful of lit matches, and dropping them inside.
What happens next is The Luminaries, the ‘Big Bang’ of plot, out of which a whole heaven and earth is created and shown to us in its entirely in a fierce 360 degree rotation of the sphere. The world in question is New Zealand in the 19th century gold rush, a place of prospectors and opium dens and shipping magnates and hastily built hotels and jails. A place just growing into its existence, and whose fledgling state shows us that the basic human inclinations are hope, greed and vice.
Into this world steps Walter Moody, a polite young man from Edinburgh, come to seek his fortune, who has been somewhat traumatised by a supernatural encounter on the barque Godspeed, a craft captained by a surly man with a scar on his cheek who signals himself straight off as our villain. Moody has sought refuge in the first hotel he could find and is hoping to steady himself with a calming brandy in the lounge. Only he happens by chance upon a gathering of twelve men, who have come together after realising their shared implication in a recent crime.
A hermit has been found dead in his shack; the town’s favourite whore has been discovered unconscious on the road, presumed to have attempted suicide; a fortune in smelted gold has turned up in the shack, marked as coming from a plot of land known to be worthless; two important shipping crates have gone missing; and the richest prospector in the town, a young man named Emery Staines, has disappeared. These are the elements of the crime, but what crime has actually been committed? How do these events all relate to one another? How do the twelve men, all of whom feel framed to some degree, prove their innocence and unravel the mystery?
A word before we go any further about crime fiction and literature. Genre fiction preserves the purity of the plot – so in romance girl meets boy, obstacles are encountered and solved to result in a happy ending with girl and boy aware of their love for one another. In crime fiction, a mystery is posed, chaos is unleashed, and then gradually the detective works to uncover ‘the truth’ in a moment of satisfying revelation which re-establishes order and safety.
The quality of the literary is to mess with these clear lines and their black and white conclusions, usually by adopting an unusual perspective on events, or by slowing what happens right down to allow the complexity of events to surface, or by challenging the assumptions that underline our sense of how things ‘should’ be, and how they ‘ought’ to come out. The Luminaries takes a particular literary approach to crime fiction by following the rules so excessively, so enormously, so neurotically, that they end up intriguingly bent out of shape.
So, a crime novel traditionally begins with an ending. The corpse represents the end of a story that has been happening in secret, invisible to the other people around. That story has to be pieced together so that we readers understand why it had to end the way it did. Okay, so far so good. The Luminaries begins by recreating the day of the crime in the most minute of detail. Each of the twelve men in the room will recount the story from his perpective (though the third person narrating voice actually tells all their stories in order to tidy them up a bit and give them coherence). And what we end up with is a huge, complex story that has, of course, spawned even more mysteries in the telling. Moody, who finds himself as the detective of the piece – the disinterested observer who can collate events into a neat order – sets about delivering the reader an extremely useful summary, midway through the novel, so that we now have the day of the crime clear in our minds.
But it’s not enough to reach anything like ‘the truth’. So in the good tradition of crime fiction, we move in two directions at once, forward as the implications of the crime are followed through, and backwards, as more information comes to light about how and why it was perpetrated. As we near the book’s conclusion, where everything should be clear and illuminated, the chapters themselves actually narrow down, galloping towards the end, as if focusing in on that last final revelation. Only when we reach the end, where we know everything there is to know, we have come full circle and are back at the beginning. But what does it all mean? It’s like a kind of pornography of plot has taken place: we’ve seen everything there is to see, and somehow along the way we’ve gone beyond the thing we really wanted to see. We’ve had so many revelations, we don’t know which one was the revelation, the one that held the key to the story. And yet we know what happened, and we end up with lovers united; it’s clearly a conclusion.
So all this is to say it’s terribly clever, and terribly tricksy, and the sort of book you really want to think about and discuss for ages. But at the same time it’s a rambunctious, rattling, plot-filled tall tale of a story, full of vivid characters and locations, enticing enigmas, blackmail, treachery, séances, shipwrecks, star-crossed lovers, thrilling courtroom scenes and much more besides. Rarely have I come across a book with so much energy! If we think of a plotline as a line cast by a fisherman zizzing out across the water, pure energetic potential, then imagine a narrative full of plotlines thrown out by each character, some forwards in time, some backwards into the past, and you have a three-dimensional cat’s cradle of a book humming with energy.
But what of the astrological dimension to the story? Each of those original twelve men in the lounge of the Crown hotel represents a star sign, and the charts at the start of each section show the constellation of the heavens on the day in question. What happens is predetermined by the stars (just as the plot of a novel is predetermined by its author). But this device which ought to remove all coincidence, all loose ends, collapses on itself when it comes to the Luminaries of the title. The sun and the moon are represented by the prospector, Emery Staines, and the whore, Anna Wetherall; they happen to be in love with each other and to be the ‘purest’ of the characters in the story. Yet their line of narrative is the craziest, a series of impossible and fantastic occurrences that resist all explanation beyond the most supernatural – or spiritual, if you’d rather. Love in the novel creates chaos that just cannot be tidied away by all those explanations, all those dovetailing witness statements, all the revelations and the secrets exposed. Of all the different energies in the novel, it is the fiercest, the most dazzling, and the most uncontrollable. I loved The Luminaries for all kinds of reasons – its audacity, its cleverness, its powerful storytelling, but I probably loved it most for having its heart in the right place.