The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Reviewed by Eileen Battersby
Young Walter Moody arrives in a small town in New Zealand in the middle of the gold rush of 1866. Although he wants to seek his fortune, he would really prefer to forget his past. He is the unhappy son of a fallen father. Yet Walter’s problems begin to appear quite small by comparison with the dastardly murk preoccupying most of the people he encounters. Everyone appears to have their own secrets, from the appallingly, bloodily criminal down to a rather petty debt burdening a bank clerk.
Secrets and secrecy drive Eleanor Catton’s huge Man Booker-shortlisted second novel, a baggy monster of much daring and consummate panache that is hugely amusing.
It is also a shrewd tale that leaves no doubts about the frailty of human nature. Few of the characters are particularly likeable, although the unfortunate prostitute, Anna, suspected of attempted suicide on the day that a man is found dead, somehow manages to remain sympathetic, if only because she spends much of the novel in the clutches of the evil, impressively intelligent Lydia Wells, a nasty and calculating madam who exploits all who enter her sphere and also does a sideline in astrological charts. One of the key set pieces in the book is the account of a seance in which she succeeds in attracting most of the central characters as she prepares to summon the soul of a wealthy missing man who may or may not be dead.
Wells is thoroughly rotten; she also has all the best lines: “You are wonderfully free with one verb, I notice . . .What does it mean for you, Mr Moody, to know something? I fancy you put rather a lot of stock in knowing – judging from the way you speak.”
Wells is the ruling genius of the book. Young Mr Moody eventually shows he is no slouch in a courtroom scene that finalises the unstitching of the plot. It is all very deliberate. The Luminaries is as carefully executed as a chemistry experiment. Catton is intent on the schema she has used, that of the position of the stars at a particular time according to the 12 houses of the zodiac. It no doubt gave her a great deal of fun, but as for the reading, and enjoyment, of the novel the astrological detail is of little consequence.
The plot is worked out through a dozen gradually dwindling chapters, from a mighty 373-page opening tour de force, longer than most contemporary novels, to a closing one consisting of a paragraph. Despite Catton’s relentlessly clever approach, the quality that makes her highly praised debut, The Rehearsal (2007), so difficult to read, The Luminaries is far more likeable; vividly logical and, even if it is easy to spot the clues, all held together with singular panache.
Central to the narrative are two substances: gold and opium. The gold incites most of the characters, and the various ploys, including sewing it into the seams of a woman’s dresses, are quite original – if nothing as compelling as the passages featuring opium. Anna spends much of the first part of the novel hopelessly addicted to it and the remainder recovering from it. Her need for it is piteously craven as she stumbles about, falling asleep for long periods, or at least sufficient to allow the gold to be unpicked from her gown. Far more unsettling is the rhapsodic descriptions of young Emery Staines’s introduction to the drug and his apparent seduction, which almost costs him his life as he stands hidden behind a bedroom curtain. Ironically, the most fully honourable individual is Sook Yongsheng, an opium dealer with a family tragedy to avenge.