Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Trust me, The Luminaries is just like a murder mystery. Except it's
not clear there’s a murder here. And instead of a dozen suspects,
we have a dozen investigators, each one trying to solve the mystery.
More to the point, they aren't quite sure what the
mystery is, and each seeker of truth has only a
handful of clues. And, in the end, it doesn't matter
what they do or know, because their astrological
charts really drive the action.
In other words, Eleanor Catton has invented the
detective story without a detective. But who needs
a stinkin' private eye when all the luminaries in
town can't wait to dig up dirt on their neighbors?
Certainly they have plenty to sniff at. There are
more skeletons in the closet in this novel than in
the storage room at the Royal Academy of Anatomy.
Under normal conditions, a story of this sort starts
out with an unsolved crime, but here we only have
the possibility of a crime—or, in this case, several
crimes. Emery Staines, the luckiest man in town, has
disappeared. Crosbie Wells, a recluse, has died under mysterious
circumstances that same night. Meanwhile Anna Wetherell, a prostitute,
is found drugged and insensate in the street. Walter Moody, a new
arrival in town, is haunted by a strange encounter in the hold of a boat in
the harbor—it might indicate a crime or merely a hallucination. Any one
of these circumstances on its own could find a ready explanation, but in
tandem they suggest that the stars have come into unfavorable alignment.
Catton, who gained notoriety as the youngest writer ever to win the
Booker Prize with this elaborate novel, sets her story in a New Zealand
gold rush town during the 1860s. In some ways, her book mimics
those sprawling nineteenth century novels that kept readers engaged,
during pre-TV days of slow-paced entertainment, with layers of plot
complications and a surfeit of characters. Yet as you approach the
conclusion of The Luminaries, you will suspect that Catton increasingly
prefers to parody the genre. Her chapter headings grow longer and
longer, while her chapters get shorter and shorter. The characters
appear to have fewer and fewer degrees of freedom, as their
astrological charts and the unfolding series of events force them
along a path that seems increasingly pre-destined and unforgiving.
This book serves as required reading for anyone seeking proof that
we now live in the age of maximalist fiction. I can't recall reading a
recent story with a more convoluted plot than The Luminaries. Every
crime and transgression here—and in addition to those mentioned
above, we also find blackmail, forgery, mistaken identity, fraud,
adultery, narcotics, assault, smuggling and various other under-
handed dealings—is explained by reference to another mystery.
Round and round the finger-pointing goes, and where it stops nobody
At moments, Catton leaves realism behind and embraces aspects
of the supernatural. This is especially daring in the context of a novel
in which so much explaining takes place. How can an author justify
inclusion of the inexplicable when the resolution of her story depends
on finding reasons, motives and methods behind all of the mysteries.
Yet Catton is willing to take just such a daring step. The reader is
forewarned that this is a mystery in which part of the solution is an
acceptance of the mysterious. In the world of The Luminaries, the
enigmatic and uncanny constitute inescapable elements of the
Not everything works in this ambitious novel. When so much of the
apparatus of a book revolves around explicating the hidden
connections between plot details, readers get little chance to stop
and enjoy the scenery or experience the local color. This novel, with
its frontier boom town setting should offer plenty of opportunity for that,
but even with more than 800 pages at her disposal, Catton leaves us
feeling a little rushed. One scene, in which new arrival Walter Moody
is given an 'update' on the investigation is as long as a novel itself.
And other incidents require presentation from multiple perspectives
before we understand their significance. Finally, the periodic inclusion
of astrological charts in The Luminaries didn't do much to enhance
my reading of the book; although perhaps if I'd spent more time
with horoscopes and star charts during the course my callow youth,
these might have helped me navigate through the rapids of Catton's
torrent of complications and resolutions. Instead I felt like my
cardiologist had refused to give me a diagnosis, and merely passed
on my electrocardiograms for perusal.
Despite these limitations, I bow in deference to our young author.
The sheer bravado of such an intricately constructed plot demands
my respect. There is more happening in this book than in the entire
collected works of Raymond Carver. And Catton doesn’t simply pile
detail upon detail; she balances more than a dozen subplots against
each other, creating a structure in which each is necessary to support
the weight of its neighbors, and no element can be removed without
sending every other one toppling to the ground.
If storytelling is the soul of any narrative, this is as soulful as a novel can
get. And, as befits a novel filled in with overtones of the supernatural
and predestined, some characters in The Luminaries even discover
their soulmate. This might just be a metaphor, but in the context of
Catton's novel, some inexplicable metaphysical linkage is implied.
It's typical of the tone of this novel, that even the love interest turns into
a house of mirrors with no clear entry point or exit.
As such remarks make clear, I still have unanswered questions about
this novel, and wonder about the untold aspects of its characters and
incidents. This could be a failing in a book of such scope and ambition.
But in this case, I felt Catton had implicitly invited me to reread the novel
and see the events on a deeper level during my second visit, while
also warning me against any hope of ultimate explanations. In a
literary novel, such coyness can take on the appearance of virtue
and virtuosity, but in a mystery novel, it represents something
approaching heresy and revolution. Thus, depending on your
perspective, Catton is a poised litterateur or a rebellious iconoclast
destroying the conventions of genre. Or, as I prefer to see her, a bit
of both, and a little bit of neither. Maybe her next novel will clear things
up, but somehow I doubt it.
Ted Gioia writes on books, music and popular culture. His newest book is Love Songs: The Hidden History,
forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
Publication Date: December 9, 2013
Great Books Guide
by Eleanor Catton
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