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Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2013. A 832-page masterpiece about a dead recluse, an enigmatic prostitute and a cast of characters as varied as they are well-drawn.
The Luminaries is a literary experiment. It starts out as a conventional Victorian “sensation” novel, using long, descriptive prose, reminding one of all those Brit Classics one has patiently champed on, before being introduced to crisper new-generation writers. But this resemblance is a trick, a con, as readers will find as they read on.
Set in the 1860s, in the gold rush town of Hokitika in New Zealand, the novel has more than 20 characters. The plot is involved, convoluted, but always intriguing. Catton includes every known genre – murder mystery, detective thriller, ghost story, doomed love story, revenge saga – in one story, but her craft is equal to the task of juggling all of these and giving them their own place.
For the first part of the novel, the 12 ‘luminaries’ of the novel relate what they each know about the recent events in town; a hermit has died (perhaps been murdered), a prostitute, Anna Wetherell, has been found in a stupor on the outskirts of town, a stash of gold has been found in the dead man’s hut (but did it really belong to the dead man? Or to the rich young man who has lately vanished?), his widow, a woman no one knew existed, has arrived to claim the booty, and the 12 luminaries have been unwittingly implicated in someone else’s trap. There is dirty business afoot, and the men (a banker, a pimp, a chaplain, a Maori greenstone hunter, a gold-digging indentured Chinaman, a hotelier and others) have gathered to try to unravel the mystery. They take into their confidence a recently arrived lawyer, Walter Moody, and tell him their stories.
In succeeding chapters of diminishing size (like the waning of the moon) the mystery is revealed, bit by bit. And as the mystery becomes clearer, Catton’s language becomes crisper and crisper, a literary device that could have backfired but instead works brilliantly and adds to the storytelling. She slyly refers to this duality at multiple places in the novel; for example, in the courtroom scene where Moody defends Anna Wetherell, the judge prudishly admonishes him and the lawyer in opposition, Broham:
’In describing Miss Wetherell’s former employment, you may choose from the terms “street-walker”, “lady of the night”, or “member of the old profession”.’
Some minutes later, Anna herself (prompted by Broham) uses the term ‘whore’ for herself; just as Catton has been doing for the entire length of the novel! It is these devices that make us realize what Catton is attempting (and succeeds at): redefining the Victorian novel to meet her own terms, kneading and tweaking it, and letting us join in the joke – in a novel written in Victorian England, the judge’s well-meant, hypocritical euphemisms would likely be the actual terms used by the author himself.
If I had to find a fault, it would be with the supernatural element in the novel. It does not jar, though – so perhaps it is my own dislike of that genre which influenced me. And perhaps it would make more sense in the context of the astrological data given at the beginning of each chapter, which, frankly, went right above my head.
But these are minor quibbles. Ultimately, this book was a joy to read (only quite painful on the wrists; the paperback weighs almost a kilo). I started re-reading it almost immediately after I finished, determined to resolve the loose ends (and not all mysteries are explained at the end of the novel; I suspect multiple re-readings are in order). And in homage to Eleanor Catton, who turns every accepted formula on its head, I have started re-reading the novel – backwards this time!