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.
Catton’s elaborate confection is theatre at its most lively. For a novel that looks to the Victorian convention of cliffhanger suspense, discoveries, immortality, dead babies, betrayal, human greed and all too human weakness, there is also a touch of Restoration comedy, particularly in its timing and sense of rhythm. A presiding omniscient narrator holds it all together with a stage director’s touch, calling in the characters, moving them about like chess pieces.
The time shifts are exactly done, the events of the year 1866 carefully played out against a backdrop of the previous year that helps consolidate the story. Catton also makes inspired use of a cache of letters that supplies the most moving moments in a novel not overly concerned with pathos.
Most surprising of all, though, considering the use she makes of the authorial voice, is the quality of the dialogue, of which there is an immense amount, most of it extremely well done.
There are echoes of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and of Peter Carey’s period pastiches, such as Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and Jack Maggs (1997). Catton’s style is closer to that of Wilkie Collins than to Dickens, as she is too controlled and self-aware to attempt the brilliantly convoluted riffs that Dickens makes look easy but are almost impossible to pull off.
Far easier to read
The Luminaries is almost three times longer than The Rehearsal yet is far easier to read. The cerebral intent and intricate star-plotting are not as daunting because they are far less important than Catton suggests. The stars no doubt play their part, but, in this colourful yarn chronicling the crazy deeds done in the pursuit of wealth, it is the characters that generate a series of happenings connecting them all in a mystery that will keep most readers reading.
Books should not be judged by their covers, or by their length. The ultimate success of The Luminaries is not in its calculation or contrived twists, but in the leisurely descriptions of admittedly stock characters all out to make their mark through mainly foul means.
Catton largely sustains a human comedy that sweeps through the hope, the mud, the lies and the secrecy underlying gold fever. It is not so much a morality play as an astute celebration of the power of story and the enduring appeal of a traditional premodernist narrative.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent