The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton, 2013
- New Zealand, #11
- Hardcover, borrowed from Brent Library, London
- Read June 2015
- Rating: 4.5/5
- Recommended for: monocle-wearing villains and gentleman prospectors
You can’t always tell by reading when an author is smarter than you, but sometimes it shines through. The Luminaries, with its complex historical mystery plot and its large and diverse cast of main characters, its elevated language (there’s a 19th-century formality to it, but there is also a modernity to the syntax and more especially to the story and its themes that don’t allow you to forget that you are reading a modern novel), its elaborate astrological frame, shows its author’s intellect at every turn. And yet this cleverness isn’t off-putting. The book manages to be both elevated and eminently readable, all of the tricks doing service to a story so intriguing that the 800-odd pages fly by all too quickly.
The literary acrobatics are most apparent in The Luminaries‘ unusual and complicated structure. Each chapter is half the length of the preceding one (with the Victorian-style chapter headings delightfully increasing in length until the last chapter, a single sentence, is preceded by an entire page of description). Each major character is assigned to a star sign or heavenly body, and begins each chapter with an astrological chart. Many have found this bit of literary capering a bit too clever: Are we expected to become astrologers in order to appreciate this book? Do we have to know exactly what it means for Mars to be in Capricorn, and understand the purported effects that it has on Gascoigne, the Capricorn character? And if not, what was the point of plotting it that way? For myself, knowing absolutely nothing about astrology, I found the device somewhat baffling, but it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book. In any book I read there are likely to be some references that I miss. I don’t always know what they are, but even when glaringly obvious as is the case here, they’re only an aspect of the book, and a good story can be enjoyed even without understanding all the allusions.
Still, I was curious about Catton’s motives for including a major element of which the majority of her readers couldn’t be expected to make heads or tails. I came across a Guardian article in which she explains how the idea came to her while reading Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies:
I found the book a terrible struggle, despite it being very slim, and, while struggling through it, I wondered why it was that novels of high structural complexity were so often inert, and why it was that structural patterning so often stood in the way of the reader’s entertainment and pleasure. Did structure have to come at the expense of plot? Or could it be possible for a novel to be structurally ornate and actively plotted at the same time?
So, it seems, she set herself a challenge. For her own structural device, she chose astrology. In researching the movement of stars in 1864-1866 she found “a triple conjunction in Sagittarius–the house that Jung associated with the collective unconscious–and [she] knew [she] had the place to begin.”
It’s an interesting idea, but to my mind it sounds like an exercise; the sort of thing you might use to spark creativity in the early stages and then cut out before you reach publication. Similarly, Catton has a penchant for precise and lengthy expositions of the characters’ personalities, which again seem to me like the kind of notes an author might make for herself during the writing process and excise from the final product. So, for instance:
Balfour’s will was too strong to admit philosophy, unless it was of the soundest empirical sort; his liberality could make no sense of despair, which was to him as a fathomless shaft, possessed of depth but not of breadth, stifled in its isolation, navigable only by touch, and starved of any kind of curiosity. He had no real fascination with the soul, and saw it only as a pretext for the greater, livelier mysteries of humour and adventure; of the soul’s dark nights, he had no opinion. He often said that the only inner void to which he paid any kind of notice was appetite, and although he laughed when he said it, and seemed very well pleased, it is true that his sympathy rarely extended to situations where sympathy was expected to extend. He was indulgent towards the open spaces of other men’s futures, but he was impatient with the shuttered quarters of their pasts.
These interruptions and asides happen fairly often throughout the book. All of the major characters get them (except for the only two female characters, which was another things that bothered me–with seventeen major male characters, Dickensian in breadth and complexity, Catton could only muster up two women, one of whom is a bland ingenue and the other a cartoonishly villainous madam?).
However, I feel a little bit bad sharing the above quote in the review because these asides are the least interesting parts of a fantastic novel. There are shipwrecks and intrigues, vanishing gold that reappears where it is least expected, opium that may or may not be poisoned, revenge and treachery. There are all of the shocking twists and turns of plot one might expect in a Victorian pot-boiler, but without the conventional morality and prejudice that limits the scope of the Victorian novel—so that we can see inside the lives of exploited Chinese immigrants working in the gold fields, a Maori greenstone hunter dealing with the intrusion of Europeans into his ancestral lands, and an opium-addicted prostitute. The book has the pacing of a page-turner but its cleverness, the varied viewpoints, the beautiful prose, and the unexpected mysticism all elevate the book above the level of a simple murder mystery.