Book Review: The Luminaries
The Luminaries is a lot of things, but at the centre of all of them it is a murder mystery. In 1866 an old hermit has been found dead in his home and a wealthy young man has gone missing. In Part 1, Walter Moody arrives in the gold mining town of Hokitika in New Zealand ready to make his fortune. What he finds instead is a meeting of twelve men who each have overlapping connections to the mystery.
The murder mystery is the catalyst for all subplots, which have something to say about friendship, love, betrayal and the culture of several different nationalities. Catton has written an exquisite Victorian style novel that is culturally relevant to contemporary literary society and society as a whole.
In 2013 The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize. Winning is an achievement in itself; however, for Catton it was a specific kind of achievement. Upon winning the prize Catton became the youngest winner of all time at the age of 28, and author of the longest piece of work to ever win the prize at 832 pages. Awards and press coverage followed and her publisher Granta ordered a new print run of 100,000 copies.
The Luminaries is both an artistic feat and a structural feat. The characters, sans Te Rau Tauwhare, play the roles of the 12 signs of the zodiac. Their personalities are based on the sign they represent. If that wasn’t impressive enough for you, the characters only meet and interact with each other on dates in the book when their signs would have crossed paths in real life.
In February of this year Catton told an audience at The Wheeler Centre that planning The Luminaries was, in fact, the easy part. She said that from there she could figure out why those characters would meet on those dates. Reverse engineering a story is risky, but Catton pulls off the complications with poise. On top of such a complex character and date structure, each of the novel’s 12 parts is exactly half the length of the part preceding it. This structural choice mirrors the lunar cycle of the moon and gives the reader a feeling of constant acceleration throughout the story. As the murder mystery comes closer to a resolution, you move faster and faster through the clues.
“It isn’t my story to tell,” Catton has said regarding Maoris and their experience of the New Zealand gold rush. The Maori people didn’t actually value gold before European settlement, and in the novel there isn’t much to say about colonisation by Europeans. The lone Maori character, Te Rau Tauwhare, is a quiet and humble man who doesn’t kick up any fuss about the thieving of his ancestors’ land. That Catton didn’t include any real information suggests she is confident that history can speak for itself. Readers don’t need drawn out explanations about where people went wrong in 1866. More importantly, in fiction it seems that sometimes writers take the stories of others and purport them to be their own under the mask of creative freedom. Catton, who respects the Maori people a great deal, hasn’t told their story in this work not out of an effort to hide the past, but as a sign of respect to those whose story it is to tell.
In our fast paced society it was pleasant to read something new that felt old, like a classic I had known about all along. That is the magic of The Luminaries; you already feel like you know it and at the same time it drives you forward with its constantly quickening pace.