The Luminaries

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.

The LuminariesWhat 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.

39 thoughts on “The Luminaries

  1. What a wonderful review, and what a joy to see the word ‘disinterested’ used correctly. Not wishing to be too much of a pedant but it’s an important word, sadly misused. I decided to leave The Luminaries until things had quietened down a little but your review has made me want to grab one immediately. I read somewhere that it is to be made into a TV miniseries – good luck with that!

    • A tv miniseries? Oh my. Well it could be worse – Hollywood could have decided to make a film out of it! I think it’s a very wise decision to leave this until you have time for it – it’s not a book to be rushed. And I’m delighted that we pedants can be enjoy correct word usage together. 🙂

  2. Fabulous review, and I now so want to read it. As soon as I’ve finished the wonderful The Signature of All Things, which I love, and was prompted to read after another of your reviews, I shall have to get a copy. Do you see an similarities with Gilbert in this book, as both deal with the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries and are linked to empire?

    • Funnily enough, I did think of Elizabeth Gilbert when I was reading, because of the size and the scope. Yet when you come to read this one, you’ll see how very different they are in their flesh and bones. That being said, there are definitely themes that unite them – being in at the start of great shifts and moves in civilisation, the sense of exploring unchartered realms of the globe (which we have no more), and love as something utterly mysterious. And I suppose there is the sense of the strangeness of fate. Oh well okay, you’ve convinced me. They’re more alike than I first thought. 🙂

      • Money, greed ,exploitation, racism, theft, the inability of rationalism to encompass totality, the difficulty of knowing anyone truly, the limitations of the ‘true’ picture, the position of women, religion and the supernatural, the open-endedness of life verses the fiction of endedness provided by detective fiction…

    • I’m no fan of huge books myself (I still think there is never any fundamental reason for a book to be longer than 500 pages). But if I had to read only one chunkster in my life, I’d be happy if it were this one.

  3. Lovely piece, Victoria. Months after reading The Luminaries, I’m still being surprised by how many different ways there are of looking at it, how many things to see. I’m going to have to re-read it more than once, no question.

    • When I was reading it, I thought how impossible it would be to read it twice and so I tried to read it very attentively. But now that the reading experience is fading and the memory of just how good and intriguing it is remains, I’m beginning to think I will perhaps have to re-read it too. It was indeed a very, very rich book.

  4. I loved how this post was like a mystery. I even blurted, “Aha!” when you confirmed my suspicion that the twelve was significant.
    And “zizzing?” That has to be the best onomatopoeia ever.
    This recommendation is terribly intriguing *arches eyebrow and twists fake moustache mysteriously*

    • Leah, this is the perfect book for saying ‘Aha!’ and twirling your fake moustache to! I would love to know what you make of it. You really must read it, but only on condition that you promise me you’ll write about it. 🙂

      • Deal! Now if I can solve the mystery of the missing time! Where does it all go so fast? I get up, I do things, I realize I feel no further than the day before, then suddenly I’m out of time. This just seems such an inefficient way to exist!

  5. Me too to everything! I think the length will prevent me from rereading it a bunch of times, but I have to reread it at least once to better appreciate all the structural games Eleanor Catton is playing. I think that’s what I liked the best about the book — how much fun she’s obviously having. And why shouldn’t she! Well done, Eleanor Catton!

    • Jenny you are so right. You can feel how completely engrossed she was with this book, heart and soul. Oh for a writing experience like that! It must have been wonderful.

  6. As everyone’s already said, a wonderful review … am I a terrible coward for being afraid to tackle such a long book? Especially when I’m already reading one – but in slow bites?

    • Oh I perfectly understand! I am very wary of large books, and on the whole get most frustrated with them. Length is definitely one of the factors that will make me turn away from a book. If you do decide to read it, then I’ll say it is worth the trouble. But even when I was reading it, I thought, I could have read four other books instead of this one! And it’s best taken in a rush, if you see what I mean, or else the details of who did what get hazy. So I quite understand being a bit uncertain about whether to commit to it or not – definitely one to undertake when the circumstances are right.

  7. You sold me! I’ve been waffling a bit, should I read, should I not? Is it overhyped? But have convinced me otherwise. Now if only the paperback would get published in the US so I don’t have to lug a hardcover around!

  8. It’ll probably be about a hundred years before I get round to it, I’ve yet to read any of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, but your and Bellezza’s reviews have convinced me that this really is worth all the time and energy, it sounds just as fabulous as everyone initially claimed it to be. Fantastic review!

    • Oh if only there were more time in the day to read – or in my case, if only I read faster. I’d probably better not mention that I really loved Wolf Hall, had I? 😉 But still, it’s nice to know there are great books waiting, even if we can’t quite get to them, dammit!

    • Well, go with your heart. There are bound to be lots of detractors now that Eleanor Catton has done so well with this book. People’s expectations will be sky high, ie impossible to meet. But it is a quality novel, for sure.

  9. Oh I missed this post but found you now! I too, loved this book especially I guess because it’s NZ set and my grandfather coal mined on the West Coast. It is an otherworldly place a bit like Jurassic Park.
    I tend to read fast and furiously but had to keep going back in this behemoth. Even that I enjoyed. I didn’t want it to end and still wish it hadn’t for me. Yes a reread is called for me thinks.
    How can someone so young write a novel this good?

    • I have to say I thought about you a lot while I was reading this. I know nothing about New Zealand, so it was good for me in that respect. It did come across as otherworldly. I don’t know HOW anyone so young could create this and damn, I’m jealous! Can’t wait to read what she writes next, though. 🙂

  10. Another one you have convinced me to read in a totally different way than the previous book! I had this out from my library but was a little overwhelmed by the sheer size of it. Just as well that is checked out at the moment, but I have mentally added it to my list. Sounds like the sort of book you love for all the right reasons–if you know what I mean!

    • I do know what you mean – I suppose a book this size either convinces you of its value or the opposite! The fact that the writing and the plotting are both so good from start to finish is pretty amazing. But it is a book that needs to be given concentrated time. I was thinking as I read it how impossible it would be to enjoy it if you could only get through a few pages a night, say. So I think you’re quite right in choosing your time carefully for it.

  11. This has been sitting on my kindle (the physical book is too big for my reading stand) since Christmas but at the moment it is too much of a commitment for me to pick it up. Perhaps during the summer months when things get a little quieter. However, when you talk about the planetary influence and then the lovers I do have to think about Romeo and Juliet and their ‘star-cross’d’ love. Sometimes when the heavens plot out our future it is chaos that they predict rather than the obvious.

    • I am already looking forward to your review of this! But definitely, pick your time to read it, because it rewards steady concentration. I did love it, though, and think you’ll appreciate the cleverness of the plot.

  12. I’m waiting for this to come out in soft cover so I can carry it around! Your review is fabulous, Litlove. Just perfect. I desperately want that softcover date to move up, now 🙂 I will be very curious to read this book in part because I do astrology myself, so I will look to see how the stars are being used. Mostly I love a good story, and this one looks playful and fun and daring. At the very least, interesting. I have to agree with your commentator who said that your review is possibly better than the book itself is! lol Your review is amazing.

    • I would love to have known a bit more about astrology when I was reading this. In one way it doesn’t matter and you can take it just as ornamentation. But on another level it’s extremely important to the book, and people who know something about the movements of the heavens will definitely get an extra layer of meaning out of that. I quite understand your desire for a paperback – it was REALLY heavy! And thank you for your kind words – it’s a book that is a whole lot of fun to write about, and I enjoyed doing so.

  13. Pingback: Best Books of 2014 | Tales from the Reading Room

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