I finished The Luminaries a week ago and knew immediately that I’d need to give myself a bit of time to mull it over before I could do it justice here on the blog. I’ve given it a great deal of thought since then and now I’m ready – armed with a fried egg sandwich, a cup of tea and some ginger cake (a feast fit for kings) – to try and put my thoughts about this wonderfully complicated, intricately plotted epic novel into words. Whether those words will make sense or not is anybody’s guess but here goes.
“A woman fallen has no future; a man risen has no past.”
I have a special place in my heart reserved just for massive, door-stopper novels like this one. They give you so much more room to settle into the story, especially when the plot is as complex and meticulously put together as this one. The Luminaries takes place in New Zealand – making it the latest stop on my Around the World tour – in the newly established gold rush town of Hokitika. When Walter Moody arrives fresh off the boat to seek his fortune in January 1866 he discovers a town in turmoil; in the past few days a local hermit has been discovered dead in his shack, a prostitute has been found lying insensible in the street and a popular young gold digger has disappeared without a trace. Shortly after his arrival Walter inadvertently stumbles into a secret meeting called by twelve local men to try to make sense of these strange circumstances. As new information is revealed he’s drawn into a bizarre tale involving hidden gold, the opium trade, blackmail, revenge, long lost family and star crossed lovers.
Oh it’s complicated. So complicated, in fact, that whenever I skipped reading for a day or two I almost always had to go back and skim read several pages again to remind myself of all the tiny but very, very important details I might have forgotten in the meantime. I could never tell whether my natural forgetfulness might one day come back to haunt me. Thankfully it never really did, mainly because as new information is revealed the explanations are revised and the tale retold, often several times over so you’re never really sure how much of any version of the tale you can really believe. It’s the intricacy of the plot, combined with the way each character’s fate is intertwined with all the others, that makes this feel like an authentically Victorian novel; there’s something very Dickensian, or even a bit Wilkie Collins about the way Catton does this. It’s brilliant.
The first 360-odd pages of the novel are set during that first evening in the Crown hotel as the twelve gathered men recount their tales to the newly arrived Moody. From hereon each of the remaining 11 chapters gets shorter and shorter, reflecting the changing phases of the moon until by the end each one is shorter than its descriptive title. To take the astrological theme further Catton associates each of her main characters with a star sign and uses charts to determine their changing fortunes as the novel progresses. It’s a clever experiment in form and although I still don’t know what exactly it added to the novel I liked the idea and on the whole I can appreciate the way in which Catton draws all of this together. However, as I think this over now I keep coming back to those decreasing chapter lengths and I wonder whether, if I’m honest with myself, I might not have found them a little unsatisfying really. The problem, I believe, is just that the briefest shrunken chapters come right at the end of the novel when you’re hungry for more information, not less. It wasn’t really something I thought about until after it was all over though.
This is really the only small complaint I have to make about this novel. I’ve been raving about how much I enjoyed it to everyone who will listen ever since. It’s the cleverest, most engaging novel I’ve read in a really long time.
I can recommend doing a google image search for Hokitika if you’re looking for some striking travel porn to make you truly desperate to visit the west coast of New Zealand. Spectacular.