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Review: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Little, Brown, 2013. 830 pp. $27

It’s 1866, and Walter Moody has endured a trying journey to Hokitika, New Zealand, the last of his troubles being a shipwreck. All he desires, therefore, is a restful hour or two before a warm fire, so he heads to his hotel’s smoking room. But twelve men occupy this space, and Moody soon learns that he’s blundered into a secret meeting. As he finds out only after they’ve carefully vetted him, a prostitute has attempted suicide; a wealthy young man who was with her hours before has inexplicably disappeared; and an enormous fortune has shown up in the home of a noted drunkard.

The number twelve obviously suggests a jury, and aptly so, because they’ve agreed to pool their information regarding these criminal events. It’s their luck — and Moody’s — that he’s had legal training. At first, he’d rather not participate, for he’s come to Hokitika to pan the gold fields. But his regard for truth and his vanity about his powers of observation draw him in, and he concludes that many of the twelve fear implication, whereas others seem united in their hatred of a key suspect and would love to prove his guilt. The dozen include, among others, a brothel keeper, a jailhouse minister, two Chinese miners, a Maori stone carver, a newspaper editor, a druggist, a banker, and a court clerk.

James Ring’s 1870 photograph of Hokitika (courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, via Wikimedia Commons)

I find this premise irresistible, and the way Catton narrates her story, orchestrating how these disparate lives intersect, is nothing less than breathtaking. Some novels strain too hard have two characters from very different walks of life cross paths — Manhattan Beach comes to mind — but a dozen seamless interweavings breaks the bank, not to mention how Catton involves the four or five other characters who weren’t invited to the meeting, yet play key roles. To be sure, Catton has an advantage in that a nineteenth-century gold-rush boomtown attracts a dizzying panoply of adventurers and hopefuls whose greed, pride, lust, prejudices, self-regard, and dreams provide a potentially rich field in which to prospect. But to make the claim pan out takes diligence and skill, and Catton tells her lengthy, intricate tale with sureness and aplomb.

To do so, she’s chosen a distinctly Victorian epic style, which works, for the most part. Consider this passage from Moody’s point of view, when he recalls the storm he passed through at sea:

The storm began as a coppery taste in the back of one’s mouth, a metallic ache that amplified as the clouds darkened and advanced, and when it struck, it was with the flat hand of a senseless fury. The seething deck, the strange whip of light and shadows cast by the sails that snapped and strained about it, the palpable fear of the sailors as they fought to hold the barque on her course — it was the stuff of nightmare, and Moody had the nightmarish sense, as the vessel drew closer and closer to the gold fields, that she had somehow willed the infernal storm upon herself.
Walter Moody was not superstitious, though he derived great enjoyment from the superstitions of others, and he was not easily deceived by impression, though he took great care in designing his own.

Note the long, looping sentences, the heightened senses, and, at the end, the explanation of character. That last feature takes getting used to, and sometimes I winced when I read such passages. (Part of Catton’s goal is to show how pride, self-presentation, and self-interest obscure truth from the observer, a case she makes convincingly.) But to her credit, Catton carries the style all the way through, depicting a mindset plausible in its time and place, without smelling salts, melodrama, or black-and-white, overdetermined characters. If The Luminaries feels Dickensian, it’s in the episodic chapters that you could envision appearing in serial, and in the way they each begin with a summary (“In which So-and-So does such-and-such”). But the dialogue feels natural rather than strained, despite the scarcity of contractions, and if the prose and tone create a romantic feel, there’s plenty of grit and ugliness to go around.

I don’t understand the attempt to graft astrology onto the narrative, nor do I find that interesting. I skipped the astrological charts before each section and their coyly vague explanations, in which each of the twelve men occupies a single house. After all, it’s a long book, and to me, the charts were a mere distraction. Conversely, odd as it sounds for a book this long, the narrative leaves a couple or three loose ends.

Nevertheless, The Luminaries is a fabulous novel, and, for those who care about awards, it won the Booker in 2013.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.