Monday, January 6, 2014

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

The LuminariesThe twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.

"It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have men in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky."

The Luminaries is quite an intriguing novel; it has many aspects of a typical Victorian pastiche while also trying to do something original. The book is trademark Dickens/Wilkie Collins, fiendishly plotted, with all sorts of mysteries within mysteries and depths to plumb. The most unique aspect of this Booker Prize winning novel is of course that the story is plotted around the astrological symbols, with twelve local men each representing one of them. I think, however, that this part was completely unnecessary; not being familiar with the astrological symbols myself, it didn't add anything to the characterization. The novel would have been just as good, if not better, without it.

The Luminaries is full of long asides and reflections, both on the characters' part and the narrator's. There's a lot of backtracking and switching of perspectives as the plot is developed more and more. I like that style, although of course it is rather infuriating because one wants to know what's going to happen next immediately. There were stories within stories; one character started off, and then different characters took up the thread, going back and retracing to the present. This is very much to do with the idea of cyclical returnings and the town's name, Hokitika, which according to the Maori character in the novel means something to do with returning; "place of return", perhaps. 

The complexity of this novel is just astonishing. There are so many different threads of narrative, and they're woven together so skillfully. Eleanor Catton also creates these absurdly complicated situations where some of the characters are trying to conceal certain things from some of the others, but want to tell those same things to other people in the room. There are many roundabout, evasive conversations in this book too, with no saying what they really mean and deliberately leaving parts of the story out. There are all these secrets, and everyone seems to have a little piece to the puzzle. I was never quite sure where this novel was going. Additionally, everyone seems to have some tenuous connection to events, and there are so many "coincidences" that occur. 

There's so much mystery in this novel in a Dickensian manner, full of all the best elements of a dense Victorian mystery. There are secrets, strange happenings, and many, many complications. Also in the vein of Dickens, there are compelling descriptions of the filth, squalor, and poverty of Hokitika, a town quite literally springing up from nowhere because of gold in the surrounding area. In general, there's so much fascinating description in The Luminaries. Is it too much in places? Yes. But I suppose one has to expect that. Many reflections on the characters' parts also populate this book, and some of them are quite interesting. The very omniscient narrator sometimes interjects as well, and I kept feeling like the narrator was snidely making choices about what to tell the reader. .

There are many different themes woven throughout the novel. One is a sort duality and parallelism between characters and situations (an example among many is the stories of Moody and Crosbie Wells, which seem in some respects to mirror one another). The stars are also key in this, although as I mentioned earlier, not an element I loved. There's also the one stemming from the name of the town, that everything is circular and will return to itself eventually; this too permeates the novel.

Each major section is half as short as the previous one; the first is over three hundred pages, and the last (the twelfth, of course) is barely two pages. Within parts, the smaller chapters too generally get shorter, so that by the time one reaches the end of this behemoth novel, the 19th century style "in which this-and-this happens" descriptions are longer than the chapters themselves. I'll admit that this is a really clever literary trick, and it made me chuckle, but to a certain extent it felt rather gimmicky. Still, I have to admire Eleanor Catton's skill with words.

There's even a courthouse scene in this book; I love reading those. In this case, Moody is the defending lawyer of the side we're presumably sympathetic to, and it was very gratifying.

Nothing is as it seems in The Luminaries, and the situation is always changing, what with so many factors and so many secrets. The Luminaries is certainly skillfully written, although it is very dense and took me a fairly long time to read. One might also say that the novel lacks focus at times, but overall it was well plotted and executed. I would recommend it if you're up for a challenge. I received a review copy from Little, Brown.

830 pages.

Rating: ****

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