Review of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
by Eleanor Catton
I tend to forget that books can be works of art. This might seem like a strange statement, considering how seriously I seem to take reading. Don’t let my relentless criticism fool you, though: by and large, I read for pleasure. The act of thinking about and analysing the books I read just happens to form an integral part of that process. Yet, for all that analysis, the artistic nature of the work often eludes me.
Occasionally, though, a book reminds me of this aspect of literature. Worst. Person. Ever. is a recent example, because Coupland seems to have set out to offend in an age where offensiveness has sold itself out. The Luminaries is another, for altogether different reasons.
At first glance, this seems like a book easily described. Eleanor Catton seems just to tell a story of love, betrayal, murder, and intrigue in the golden days of 1860s New Zealand. Yet anyone who ventures into this novel armed with this basic understanding will soon find themselves surprised. The first third of the book is a series of nested narratives that furnish the setting and circumstances at the centre of this story. It’s not difficult reading, but at the same time there is a distinct lack of urgency to this unspooling of story. With each page, Catton sets up more questions, more complexity, but she moves in a very lateral way, branching out instead of building atop what she has already introduced.
Comparisons of The Luminaries to Victorian novels are apt. Catton’s sprawling and telescopic style emulates the storytelling that was in vogue at the time the novel is set. Her cast is Dickensian in its size and the detail with which she explores each member’s backstory. And, of course, there is the use of the series of incredible coincidences, which allow all these characters’ lives to intersect in exceedingly improbable yet interesting ways. All in all, the book definitely reminds me of Bleak House.
Whether such emulation is worthwhile, in this age of shorter and shorter attention spans, is up for debate. It’s worth noting that many Victorian novels, particularly Dickens, were originally published in serialized form. Hence, what seem like long, slow-burning stories to us were actually weekly instalments, complete with cliffhangers and the necessary explanation to help cement a character in the reader’s mind. Just as the style of writing has shifted over the centuries, so too has our methods of publishing and packaging. (Interesting, short fiction is enjoying a new renaissance with the increasing popularity of ebooks, and I wonder if serials—like The Human Division—will catch on again.) Hence, it isn’t a simple case of Catton emulating the Victorian style for an audience of modern readers; the way in which we read novels, Victorian or contemporary, has fundamentally changed over time.
I certainly wouldn’t advise reading The Luminaries over the course of four days like I did. Having received the book as a Christmas gift from my dad, I determined it is too large and heavy to bring to England with me—so it was either read it now, or read it in the summer when I return home. I chose to read it now, but because I was flying back on Friday, I had to read quickly. Huh. This was probably not the correct decision, for this is a book that demands careful reading and reflection. I followed the plot well enough, but I’m sure there are details I missed that would have enhanced my appreciation of the story.
Additionally, in comparing Catton to Dickens, we should consider the substance of the story, not just its structure. Dickens is a master of social commentary; his novels are not just intense stories but scathing indictments of Victorian society. Bleak House, for example, is a both a condemnation of English courts and a cautionary tale against obsession and avarice. I have a harder time characterizing the moral of The Luminaries. Indeed, as a result of Catton’s use of astrological symbolism in the structure—something never really explored or explained in much detail—I found this a difficult book to interrogate along thematic lines. In short, Catton replicates the dynamic characters that make Dickens so successful, but I'm less certain she has replicated the moral fibre that underlies those characters.
If we move beyond the consideration of The Luminaries as an homage to the Victorian novel, then, we could look at it as a mystery or a work of postcolonial fiction. As a mystery, it's the best kind: there's murder, and a prostitute, and shady characters of all description. The particulars are clouded by prejudice and racism and business interests. The connections among the sprawling cast of characters are organic only in the way they can be in fiction and in a settlement as small as Hokitika. Catton capitalizes on the frontier atmosphere of the town to heighten the sense of drama, most notably in the absence of organized law enforcement. Governor Shepard, head of the Hokitika Gaol, doubles as a kind of sheriff, and so Catton manages to inject a little of the Wild West into the proceedings.
I kept finding myself imagining what kind of accents these characters might have. It's interesting how quickly accents drift--most of these characters were immigrants and not, in fact, New Zealanders by birth--though some, like Anna, were originally from Australia. I wonder how long after the colonization of these areas it took for the accents to change noticeably. And I wonder how such accents are linked to the development of a national identity distinct from mother Britannia. Certainly the British characters in this book identify as British rather than as New Zealanders. Even Frobisher, who was born in New Zealand to immigrant parents, finds himself speaking about England as if he fondly remembers living there. So in this respect, Catton is very successful at capturing the spirit of these times, as the British attempt to replicate England through the construction of hotels and pubs and courthouses and the creation of newspapers, gaols, and clubs.
All of these redeeming qualities are there to be found, if one has the patience and desire to find them. I can understand how, for some, that undertaking is too much. The Luminaries is a curiously weighted book. The first part is extremely long, with each subsequent part getting progressively shorter until, by the very end, the chapters dwindle to mere pages. Such deliberate artificiality is what makes the book so obviously art. Yet it also imposes constraints on the story that can make it harder to tell. For instance, the last two hundred or so pages of the book are flashbacks to the previous year, explaining how Anna met Lydia Wells and the animosity between Carver and Crosbie Wells developed. Some of this has already come out during the rest of the book. And while it's interesting to see it happening first hand, it's not really necessary, and so it feels as more of an appendix to the book than a part of the story. I would have been quite happy for the book to end on the chapter where Moody leaves town to walk north to where the gold deposits might prove more fruitful. That chapter has a nice tone of finality to it, and with the mystery resolved, there isn't any need to delve further into these characters' backstory.
The structure speaks to discipline on Catton's part, not to mention vision. But structure, discipline, and vision do not necessarily result in harmony or unity. The Luminaries is a novel of modest scope but breathtaking depth. As a work of historical fiction, and as a mystery, it delivers a satisfying story but at an uneven, sometimes torturous pace. As an example of the Victorian style of novel ported to the modern era, it is somewhat of an experiment, and not one that I'm entirely sure succeeds. Although I ended up enjoying this, it was an enjoyment that requires a level of effort and perseverance one isn't always willing to muster--in short, entirely appropriate for a Booker winner, but not always encouraging when all you want is a good yarn.