The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, is a sprawling novel set in the goldfields of New Zealand in the mid 1800s that is part murder mystery, part court room drama, part frontier adventure, and part gothic romance. The novel begins with a clandestine meeting of 12 men, a suspicious death, a stolen fortune, and a suicide attempt and over the course of its 800+ pages, tells the stories of each character – their connections to each other, their reasons for being in the goldfields, and how they relate to the activities of the fateful night in question.
When I say that The Luminaries is sprawling, you should be picturing your most hyperbolic expression of that word. For the first half of the novel, while characters were still being introduced, I had to create sprawling diagrams just to keep the characters and the whereabouts of the stolen fortune clear, and referred to them often throughout the entire book. But the prose is vivid, the characterization is strong, and although you don’t “breeze through it” (it’s Victorian style requires a slow and savoring reading) it is a compelling narrative.
The structure of the book is odd. Each character relates to an astrological sign, something that meant very little to me as I was reading the book, but has been very interesting as I’ve read other people’s interpretations (especially regarding Emery as the sun and Anna as the moon – something I didn’t pick up on at all, but an idea that is quite lovely in hindsight). Also, as the book progresses the chapters become shorter and shorter. For the most part, I quite liked this. As the chapter lengths shortened, the pace of the book quickened, as you reached towards the denouement. But, unfortunately, this left the entirety of Parts 9-12 (only 20 or so pages) with chapters no more than a paragraph each. After reading a beautifully written, complex opus, it was jarring to be finishing with quick, choppy, and frankly, a little unclear, final scenes.
In addition, the first three quarters of the book seem to be driven by the character Walter Moody’s discovery of the true events that have occurred. That abruptly stops in the last quarter of the book after the trials take place and is also a little disorienting to the flow of the narrative.
I was left with a lot of questions at the end of the book, some of which were easily resolved with Google’s help (although some of these things, I felt, could have been clearer from the reading itself), and some that I can’t find answers to at all. I list them below, since they include spoilers.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. If I had given it a rating prior to finishing the last section, I would have easily given it an 8. But the end was such a surprising disappointment, that I was left feeling pretty let down.
And really, the feeling that I’m left with more than anything is that although I desperately wanted to relate to and love these characters (there is plenty here to work with – Ah Sook’s tragic story, Anna’s terrible fall from grace, Moody’s dissolution, even Crosbie’s longing for affection), I just didn’t connect deeply to them. Although compared to Dickens in it’s scope and style, the most I felt when reading The Luminaries, was anger (righteous indignation?) towards Lydia Wells. To me, that was the closest the novel ever got to making a Statement and transcending simply telling a story. That is what The Luminaries lacks when compared with great Victorian literature – the Moral story, the Statement on life and truth and humanity. It hinted at it, but never really seemed to get there.
K’s rating of The Luminaries: 6/10 mangoes
Here are all the things I couldn’t figure out after finishing the book:
How did Anna nearly die in the road? (after Googling, it seems that she only collapsed because of her linkage to Emery, when he collapsed. But I’m still not clear why he collapsed, either, as this would have been well prior to his gun shot wound and falling in the trunk.)
Who killed Carver? (Apparently we are meant to deduce that Te Rau killed him, after the flash back in which Carver admires Te Rau’s club. I totally missed that allusion during the reading, and am even more puzzled by the fact that Te Rau didn’t accompany Carver to the prison in the narrative.)
Did Moody reunite with his father? (This I can’t really get any opinions on other than additional confusion on why that story line was even reopened. Strange.)
Why didn’t Carver steal the gold when he killed Wells? (Not sure that I’ve found a satisfying explanation for why a thief and con man with underworld and black market trade contacts wouldn’t have just stolen the fortune instead of going through the ruse of Lydia claiming it as heir and risking exposure?)
Who was in the trunk on the Godspeed that Moody saw? (I later realized that this must have been Emery, although I missed the significance of his fall on the quay during my reading, and although falling on a quay after being shot in the neck seems unlikely to result in a man stuck in a trunk and loaded onto a ship.)
If you’ve read The Luminaries, did you feel like there were questions left unanswered?