The Luminaries

The LuminariesThe Friday before last, I had my thirtieth birthday party; last Friday I finished The Luminaries. I’m not sure which Friday was more triumphant. While the first was a glorious yellow celebration of friendship and happiness and fun, the second saw the end of a colossal book which has taken up a whole month of my reading life.

It was a very enjoyable month. Well, at least the first fortnight was, then, as you might have gathered from my last post, the pleasure was tinged with impatience. And I read quickly – I can’t imagine what it would be like to read The Luminaries at a more sedate pace … just think, you’d still be reading it well into next year!

In case you have been on a different planet (see what I’m doing there, with the astrological pun), The Luminaries is New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s second novel. She is only twenty-eight. It won the Booker Prize. It is over 800 pages. All facts awe-inspiring enough to pique a curious reader’s interest.

The novel opens with two of the oldest clichés: a combination of ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ and ‘A man walks into a bar’. Walter Moody walks into the smoking room of the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, New Zealand, on 27 January, 1866, which happens to be a dark and stormy night. He soon senses that something fishy is going on. It transpires that the twelve men gathered there have come together to discuss the strange happenings of the last fortnight: a recluse has been murdered, a whore has attempted suicide, a young man has gone missing, and a fortune of gold has been found in the murdered man’s house.

It is an exciting beginning, and the pages whizz past as Catton takes us from one protagonist to another, telling us the story from all sides, letting us – alongside Walter Moody – gradually piece together what exactly has happened. At one point, Moody is asked, what it means for him ‘to know something’ and he replies:

I suppose that to know a thing is to see it from all sides.

We do indeed see this story from all sides, and never do we feel that Catton has lost control of the many sides of her narrative. In a way, it is an extension of Virginia Woolf’s seven-sided carnation in The Waves, or Penelope Lively’s disconcertingly wonderful jolts in perspective in Moon Tiger (see this post for more on this). Here the thing is initially twelve-sided, but expands, as more and more characters come into play.

I enjoyed getting to know Hokitika in 1866, at the height of the New Zealand gold rush, of which, until The Luminaries, I’d never heard. Here are men and women on the make, seeking their fortunes, making their futures and, more often than not, running away from their past. These are first class ingredients for a piece of high Victorian drama, and that is what we get, complete with the slightly kitsch chapter-opening epigrams, such as:

In which the merits of asylum are discussed; a family name comes into question; Alistair Lauderback is discomforted; and the shipping agent tells a lie.

Everyone has his secrets and motives, and the web of intrigue is complex and entangling. It reminded me a little of Dickens’ Bleak House.

Except, of course, we’re in the twenty-first century and Catton is too clever to spin us just a shaggy dog story. We know she must have employed that double-cliché beginning as a kind of bluff. There are indeed many moments where our attention is drawn to the many layers of storytelling, such as:

We shall therefore intervene, and render Sook Yongsheng’s story in a way that is accurate to the events he wished to disclose, rather than to the style of his narration.

All the while, the reader is made aware of the astrological patterning, with chapter titles like ‘Venus in Aquarius’, or ‘Mercury Sets’, and charts drawn out at the beginning of each of the novle’s twelve parts. I have to confess that the astrological side of things flew right over my head (appropriately enough), although I did like this moment when Moody first looked at the Southern Hemisphere sky:

The skies were inverted, the patterns unfamiliar, the Pole Star beneath his feet, quite swallowed … He found Orion – upended, his quiver beneath him, his sword hanging upward from his belt; Canis Major – hanging like a dead dog from a butcher’s hook … It was as if the ancient patterns had no meaning here.

The world is upside-down, life here is of a new order. Now we’re further back than the Victorians and are with John Donne and Shakespeare and their ‘brave new world’ and ‘new-foundland’, except that New Zealand is even farther away than America, the old order even more inverted. It is refreshing and fascinating to read about a different frontier people.

So far so good, albeit so long… then, as the weight of the book shifts from the right hand to the left, the narrative takes a different turn. The mysteries are unravelled and understood, and a love story is revealed between a man and a woman (I won’t reveal their identities) who are spiritual twins. It is a strange sort of love story that feels peculiarly unsatisfactory, just as the resolution of the novel’s mysteries don’t leave one particularly fulfilled. The novel becomes increasingly post-modern as the end draws near; the chapter epigrams start to contain more narrative than the rapidly shrinking chapters, which become snippets of conversation, glimpses, moments. They are reminiscent of the cover design – the moon revealing just part of a face as it waxes and wanes, while the whole is hidden by all the white space of the night sky.

The Luminaries begins as tight as a coil, sprung with tension – you could cut the atmosphere in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel with a knife. As the narrative plays out, the coil slackens and everything spaces out. It is entropic. Soon we are left with more gaps than writing.

GravityThis may be a ridiculous comparison, but indulge me please, given the appropriate astrological context. The Luminaries is not dissimilar to George Clooney in Gravity. It begins doing one thing – fixing a space station or solving a mystery – then segues into an almost-but-not-quite love story, and then drifts out, ever outwards, into the vast nothingness of space.

The Luminaries is a genre-defying novel that makes its reader question what a novel is. What do we desire from a novel, and what can we demand from it? What is a mystery all about? What is a love story all about? It’s a shape-shifting book. You think you’re reading one thing and then find you’re reading something else. It happens on the small-scale as you are passed between the different protagonists, getting to know things ‘from all sides’, and then in a brilliant post-modern stroke, Catton makes us question not just the fictional events but the very nature of fiction itself.

Eleanor Catton is very clever to have got us all puzzling over these big questions, while situating her puzzle in such an engrossing world. The Luminaries is a great book that works on many levels, and I can completely see why it won the Booker Prize. But for all the beautiful language and the narrative dexterity and the big post-modern questions, it left me feeling unsatisfied. By the end I no longer cared much about the murder, the gold, the whore or the love story. Perhaps that’s the point, but I found it a somewhat frustrating point to make. And if that is the point, then couldn’t she have made it rather more quickly?

As I said, The Luminaries took up a month of my reading life. I can’t remember when I last spent such a long time reading the same book. I would have read five or six normal-sized novels in that time. You might quip that bringing time into it is pointless but, put it this way, in the time it took me to read and puzzle over The Luminaries, I could have read all of E.M. Forster’s novels, or two-thirds of Penelope Fitzgerald’s. I expect I could have read a third of all Shakespeare’s plays. As was brutally pointed out to me a few months ago – we can only read so many books before we die. Our reading lives are limited more than we might care to think. For a novel to be six times as long as another novel, hence take up six times as much of one’s time, then surely it must be six times as good? While The Luminaries was a thoroughly enjoyable book, clever in so many ways, imaginative, transporting, brilliant yes … I’m afraid I just don’t think it was better than all of Forster’s novels put together.

Perhaps I would feel less vexed about all the time that it demands of its reader if I’d read it on holiday, when one suddenly gets a glut of unexpected reading time. I would heartily recommend it for a flight to New Zealand, for instance. Or, perhaps if I’d had an unlucky patch of reading and had read a few short not-particularly-good novels, then I would have rejoiced at finding such a big brilliant novel that comes pretty close to  fulfilling the reader’s desire of never wanting it to end. I read The Luminaries during my everyday reading life, however, and, although I enjoyed the trip, I slightly wish I could get a fortnight of that time back.

These things pray on one’s mind as one begins a new decade.

Perhaps you have read The Luminaries and think differently of it? I’d love to know your thoughts.

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19 Responses to “The Luminaries”

  1. julia Harrison Says:

    Catton plays around with narrative in an interesting, (and much shorter!) way in her first novel the Rehearsal. On the question of reading well, I sometimes find myself regretting the speed with which i read: I am currently deeply moved by a Single Man, and wish I was reading it much more slowly to savour Isherwood’s extraordinary combination of thoughfulness and wit. On the subject of the goldrush, Rose Tremain evokes the spirit of the times beautifully in her novel set in New Zealand ‘The Colour’.

  2. Elisabeth Barnett Says:

    I know you liked Penelope,Fitzgerlds writings. Pen….. Fitg… a life, by Hermine Lee, is now out. I enjoyed reading it, and discovering more about her, and it brought back many memories of our families. My mother thought Penelpe was her oldest friend. They met when they were very young.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Yes, Elisabeth, thanks for letting me know. I have been eyeing up Hermione Lee’s book and it certainly looks wonderful! I suppose it is just another very long book, and I might need a little recovery time first.

  3. debbierodgers Says:

    Hmmm…The Luminaries also won Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. That’s two major awards in my reading orbit (see, I can do it too) and yet I’m still undecided as to whether to invest the time. 🙂

  4. Alice Says:

    I’ve not yet read it – waiting for paperback as the thought of trying to hold the hardback is a little off putting. The problems I have with tackling mammoth books is as you’ve mentioned, I can’t help but think of all the books I could have read in the time it’s taken to finish. However, sometimes you get a long read where by the end you just feel that elation from a good tale or a wonderfully thick plot and it feels worth it.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Yes that elation is indeed a wonderful feeling, especially as it’s augmented from the virtue one inevitably feels from having stuck with it. Shall look forward to hearing your thoughts when the paperback’s out next spring.

  5. Barb Says:

    After finishing this tome, I, too, felt unsatisfied. I have unanswered questions. After investing time in 800 pages, I want to know the answers. Have you read the book? Can you help figure some of these things out?
    1). The Chinaman reports to Shephard that Mannering is a bad man, and is “double dipping”- certainly doing something fishy with the gold. So I’m assuming Mannering is the one responsible for putting (or directing) the gold dust to be put in the dresses. But who is actually doing this? The Chinaman? And then Ah Sook was the one who took it out and made it into bars?
    But Carver was shipping this trunk…was Mannering in cahoots with Carver?
    2). When Carver gets arrested (and ultimately killed), was it because he got linked to gold smuggling?
    3) Was Moody’s apparition not an apparition? Was it really Staines in the crate? What was to be gained here? Were they (Carver) going to dump Staines’ body overboard?
    4). Why did Margaret turn in (betray) Ah Sook after helping him?
    5). Why wasn’t there more made of the relationship between Lauderback and Crosbie? Moody read all those letters, which is huge, but Lauderback never opened up about this relationship. Why not?
    6). Why didn’t anyone catch on or press charges for the deliberate drugging of Anna and Staines?

    • Marama Says:

      1. Ah Quee was indentured to work for Mannering on the Aurora claim. The Aurora claim was worthless, but Mannering was salting to make it seem like it a viable proposition so he could sell it. Mannering had nothing to do with putting the gold in the dresses. That was done by Carver and Lydia Wells. That gold rightfully belonged to Crosbie Wells. He’d found it in the Dunstan goldfields two years prior. Lydia and Carver stole it from him and sewed it into her dresses so it could be smuggled out of New Zealand and into Australia. However, the trunk with the dresses was taken off the ship to Australia and ended up on another which was wrecked off the Hokitika bar. They were sold as salvage to Anna Wetherell who was unaware of the gold in them. She hung out with Ah Quee. He found the gold in the dresses, suspected it was Mannering’s, stole it, and smelted it into ingots and marked them as Aurora gold so he could earn something off suspected his diggings. By this time Mannering had off loaded the claim to Emery Stains, who knew it was a duffer claim, because he didn’t want to have to give 50 percent of his earnings to Carver. .

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Thank you for your questions. I just finished the novel and have more, too. Are Anna and Emery related? Was Frederick Moody someone else we met in the story with a different name? How did Francis Carver know Adrian Moody? Who is Paddy Ryan?

  7. Marama Says:

    Spoiler alert:
    2. All the witnesses were held in custody during the trial, but Sheperd decided to lock Carver up probably for his own protection. Carver’s killing was utu – which gives you a strong clue as to who did it.

  8. Anonymous 2 Says:

    Spoiler Alert questions: Thank you for all of this helpful information. Can anyone answer a few more? Why was Adrian Moody introduced at the end of the novel? Why was Lydia able to speak Cantonese and to remember the exact words of Sook Yongsheng so many years later? Exactly how was Wells killed -was the laudanum put into what he was drinking and was it poisoned? What happened to Anna’s resin that Pritchard was looking for to test it? It was not poisoned, right? (Did she collapse in the street because Staines hit his head?) Many questions…

  9. wildwordmedia (@efossettwalsh) Says:

    My read was that Carver was arrested for forgery on the documents for the sale of the ship.

    As for the gold in the dresses, I thought Carver and Lydia hid the gold in the dresses, which Anna then bought off the wreck. Clinch and Sook then discovered the gold. Quee Long removed it from all but one dress, and then smelted it into bars he hid in the mine safe.

    I did feel there was another layer of the conspiracy – between the 12 men — specifically Clinch, Mannering, Pritchard — that wasn’t fully uncovered. Did Catton want her readers to figure it out, just as we had to figure out who killed Carver? We only hear there reports 1) to Moody in the bar and 2) in the trial. I kept waiting for Catton to circle back and give us more but the end of the book was centered on the back story. But I feel there was more there. I may have missed this but was there ever an explanation for Anna collapsing the 2nd time from laudanum? My read was that Clinch must have put in her tea (while she was hiding out from Lydia). But what was his motivation? I’m thinking that Clinch, Mannering and Pritchard were all to some extent working for Lydia’s interests. Maybe this was obvious to other people and I just missed it.

    As far as the Adrian Moody issue:

    My read was that Catton was setting up a series of twinned relationships in the book:

    Anna + Staines vs. Lydia + Carver (so Lydia/Anna and Carver/Staines) with Wells as the crux in all of these.

    Moody’s relationship with his family was meant as a twin to Lauderback and Crosby’s relationship with their father and each other.

    Sook and Quee Long

    I’m still trying to figure out where Sheperd and Margaret fit. I wasn’t satisfied with why Margaret betrayed Sook except that I would guess Sheperd promised her he wouldn’t kill Sook, just like Carver promises Lydia he won’t kill Wells back in Dunadan – so another twinned relationship.

    I wasn’t wholly satisfied with the apparition on the boat, except that it got Moody involved and Moody “saved” Anna and Staines. There was an element of magical realism that if it was intentional could have been emphasized a bit more so I knew it was intentional (just me). I’m thinking of the apparition, and the seance, and also the way that Pritchard kept having a vision/sense of the ocean when he confronted Anna in her room. I think this element of magic realism makes me more patient with the coincidences which otherwise would have bothered me. I think a lot of the book is about luck — how luck changes — I kept thinking of as a wheel — a roulette wheel (like the one that got Wells married to Lydia) and the zodiac wheel. I’m trying to guess which zodiac sign goes with which of the Planetary Characters, and would like to see how the structure maps to the zodiac charts at the start of each long chapter.

    Sorry for such a long post! I’m just dying to talk to someone about this book and figure out what I missed/read wrong. I feel like I need to reread it but don’t quite have the energy for that.

  10. wildwordmedia (@efossettwalsh) Says:

    Also, I think that Staines had smoked the rest of the resin that Pritchard was looking for (before hiding behind the draperies and being shot). I’m wondering if Pritchard was looking for it b/c it had been doctored – which was why both Anna and Staines were so knocked out by it. The question is motive, once again. Does anyone have any ideas. We know Pritchard was working with Carver.

    I assume Carver poisoned Wells with the laudanum – but was there enough in his blood stream to do it?

  11. Julia Wells Says:

    Yes, I too feel dissatisfied with all the unanswered questions. Too much reliance on the supernatural relationship between the astral twins, Anna and Emery. I’m left with an appreciation for Catton’s prose style and imagination and sense of place. I was suitably transported and engrossed in the tale. But it’s too clever by half.
    Julia Wells

  12. Rachael Robinson Says:

    I was left unsatisfied with the ending. I have more questions than answers which is frustrating after spending such a long time reading this book. How did Crosbie die was it murder and by whom? How did Staines fall and become concussed, we know Anna had a pipe that night which probably resulted in her losing some time and then found herself waking up in jail. Who killed Carver?

  13. Neha Chaudhary Says:

    Yeah same here. Even I was left with more questions than a fair understanding of the book. The most lingering of all was, who killed Carver ??
    Also, why was Moody’s father introduced at the end only and what does one make of the reaction of Lydia when she realizes that Carver has been murdered ????
    Please answer anyone !!:(

  14. Book Review: The Luminaries – musingsonotherthings Says:

    […] very much enjoyed this thoughtful review even though my experience with the novel was slightly […]

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