The Luminaries is a 2013 novel by Eleanor Catton. It is Catton's second novel. Set in New Zealand's South Island in 1866, the novel follows Walter Moody, a prospector who travels to the fledgling West Coast settlement of Hokitika to try to ma...
The Luminaries is a 2013 novel by Eleanor Catton.It is Catton's second novel. Set in New Zealand's South Island in 1866, the novel follows Walter Moody, a prospector who travels to the fledgling West Coast settlement of Hokitika to try to make his fortune on nearby goldfields. Instead, he stumbles into a tense meeting between twelve local men, and is drawn into a complex mystery that is covering up a series of unsolved crimes.
It was published by Victoria University Press and by Granta Books on in 2013. It has won many awards and honors, including the 2013 Man Booker Prize. BBC 2 is also presenting a TV miniseries of the same name.
Eleanor Catton MNZM (born 24 September 1985) is a New Zealand novelist. Her second novel, The Luminaries, won the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
Awards and honours
2007 Adam Award in Creative Writing for The Rehearsal
2007 The Sunday Star-Times (NZ) Short Story Competition for Necropolis
2008 Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship at the Iowa Writers' Workshop
2008 Louis Johnson New Writers' Bursary
2009 Betty Trask Award for The Rehearsal
2009 New Zealand Society of Authors Hubert Church (Montana) Best First Book Award for Fiction for The Rehearsal
2009 Guardian First Book Award shortlist for The Rehearsal
2009 Orange Prize longlist for The Rehearsal
2010 Amazon.ca First Novel Award for The Rehearsal
2013 Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries
2013 Governor General's Award for English-language fiction for The Luminaries
2014 Walter Scott Prize shortlist for The Luminaries
Catton, Eleanor (2008). The Rehearsal. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press. ISBN 9783716026328.
Catton, Eleanor (2013). The Luminaries. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press. ISBN 9781847084316.
Various short stories published in Best New Zealand Fiction Vol. 5 (2008); the Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories (2009), and Granta issue 106 (Summer 2009).
Eleanor Catton is an extraordinary writer. Her first novel, The Rehearsal, was a marvellously peculiar and technically perfect story of a story within a story – or stories, actually – that had the reader's mind spinning with the complexities of its narrative invention. The plot – a group of teenage girls acting out the consequences of a sex scandal at their school – was set loose from the very premise of storytelling. Whether what was taking place on the page was an account of events or only words in a script, no more than a rehearsal for what may or may not have happened … none of it mattered. It was wild.
The Luminaries is every bit as exciting. Apparently a classic example of 19th-century narrative, set in the 19th century, with all the right-sounding syntax, clothing and props, the project twists into another shape altogether as we read, and continue to read. The book is massive – weighing in at a mighty 832 pages. But every sentence of this intriguing tale set on the wild west coast of southern New Zealand during the time of its goldrush is expertly written, every cliffhanger chapter-ending making us beg for the next to begin. The Luminaries has been perfectly constructed as the consummate literary page-turner.
But it is also a massive shaggy dog story; a great empty bag; an enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat. For nothing in this enormous book, with its exotic and varied cast of characters whose lives all affect each other and whose fates are intricately entwined, amounts to anything like the moral and emotional weight one would expect of it. That's the point, in the end, I think, of The Luminaries. It's not about story at all. It's about what happens to us when we read novels – what we think we want from them – and from novels of this size, in particular. Is it worthwhile to spend so much time with a story that in the end isn't invested in its characters? Or is thinking about why we should care about them in the first place the really interesting thing? Making us consider so carefully whether we want a story with emotion and heart or an intellectual idea about the novel in the disguise of historical fiction … There lies the real triumph of Catton's remarkable book.
As in her first novel, Catton manages her multiple storylines with deft assurance, winding up a skein of a mystery that's rich with secrets, sex and opium, a doomed love affair, murder and double dealing. It opens like a play, in a town called Hokitika, late at night – with an English gentleman blown through the door of the local inn, out of the weather and straight into the midst of a very strange crowd indeed. "The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportment and dress – frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill – they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of the city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them."
The sense of staginess here, of set design and costume and figures placed in a room, recalls Henry James's The Art of the Novel, when he writes about managing plot and drama as though directing a play. Full of theatrical detail and action that reads as carefully as stage directions, everything about the way this story is presented makes us think of James's "divine principle of the scenario".
In the same way, this drama relies on the confessions and revelations of its players who, one after the other, relate their version of events – it's both a realistic-seeming account of characters' individual actions and a melodramatic, highly wrought, artificial piece of tale-telling. The way that tale is told changes throughout the book, too, moving from a story told by insiders to an outsider, to the narration of a series of connected events, finally ending with its beginning. All the time, Catton wants us to be aware that this is fiction we are involved with (an authorial presence is generally referred to; there are numerous hypertextual moments that underline that fact, with the word damned appearing as d___ed; introductory summaries are given at the start of every chapter). Her commitment to the artificiality of her project is complete.
But the problem is that as we read on, we don't read in. It is a curious act of double-writing that Catton has achieved – that she could write more and more about a thing, only to have it matter less and less. The characters don't gain depth as the story proceeds; they slip further away from us. The more words given to them, the less we know anything much about them. The last section of the book is an act of bravado analepsis, with chapters thinning out into mere pages as the backstory is laid out.
The same intriguing, undoing kind of writing works on the world of the book, too; its setting and details. So we may read and read about the weather, about the interiors of rooms, the costumes people wear, the food on their plates, the New Zealand riverbank and mists and waters, the sound of its rain hammering on a tin roof … Yet these details don't come together to be compressed into a reality we care about and inhabit. If the book has been made as a kind of stage, then these are the stage sets – not real to look at, only made of paper and glue. In the end, Catton's wondrous 19th-century New Zealand and its rivers of gold may as well be as far away from us as the colony would have been once to a British reader. Out of sight, out of mind.
Those girls in Catton's first novel, literary constructs though they may have been, gathered up our concern as the story went on. We were involved in what happened; we cared about those words on the page. Here, it is as though the opposite is made to be the case. Catton has created her own world in The Luminaries – an upside-down, southern hemisphere kind of a place with its own astrological calendar that casts its own kind of influence, its own light. The clue is in the title, after all, and in the confusing frontispiece that the publishers might have made more of, to alert the general reader to the fabulous trick of the book they hold: that this great, intricately crafted doorstopper of a historical novel, with its portentous introduction, astrological tables, character charts and all the rest, in fact weighs nothing at all. Decide for yourself, Reader, at the end of all your reading, what you think of that: is "nothing" enough?
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