The 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.
This 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.