How does one approach The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton? In terms of style, Catton created a wonderful work that mimics 19th-century literature. Each chapter has a short summary, in which the reader gets a glimpse of what will happen. The novel takes place in New Zealand, during the gold rush between 1850 and 1865. The language of both the characters and the overarching narrative feel right for the time period of the novel.
In terms of complexity, Catton pulls off a story with multiple points of view that at its heart is both a mystery and a love story. The complexity though is both a liability and an accomplishment. For some readers, it will be too much as the narrative zigzags between thirteen characters in the first 300+ pages as the action all technically takes place on one day, with flashbacks.
The mood of the novel works well initially for this first half of the book. Walter Moody, new to Hokitika, witnessed something terrible upon the barque Godspeed, which is captained by a gruff man named Francis Carver. It’s almost cliché, but it’s a dark and stormy night when Walter Moody makes his way down to the parlor of the Crown Hotel, where he’s been recovering in his room. He inadvertently interrupts twelve men who become eerily quiet. The men each have a part of the story and share an implication in the death of Crosbie Wells, a hermit woodcutter, the disappearance of Emery Staines, a young, rich prospector, and the misfortune of Anna Wetherell, a former prostitute, who has gone into mourning following an attempted suicide and the loss of her unborn child. As Moody wins the men’s trust, they begin to narrate their bits of the story to him and he takes it upon himself to solve the mystery. Afterward, the men are bound to one another with an oath of secrecy.
Economy of Narrative
One aspect of writing I try to be aware of is: what’s necessary for the story to work? The Luminaries weighs in at 830 pages. Are all of those scenes needed? Or, did Catton not know what to cut? After the dramatic ending at page 717, Catton spends more than 100 pages on back story. It takes the reader out of the narrative and isn’t really needed at this point. Yes, it fills gaps. The reader learns how Lydia Wells (Greenway) and Francis Carver set things into motion, but who cares? The novel works just as well without the reader having these scenes. We know they manipulated events and people, do we need to know how? It almost feels like Catton becomes aware of this as she starts to play with the summaries above chapters. She gives us short scenes of a paragraph or two but loads all of the emotion and drama into the summaries which become longer and longer. It’s playful and fun but comes at the cost of the reader being exhausted by the previous flashbacks.
I don’t want to give something fun away, but there is a moment in the book that bends all the forces of reality and logic. I enjoyed it, but it might frustrate some readers. Or, perhaps, those frustrated readers will take up the version of events as one of the characters testifies in court, instead of the inexplicable occurrence.
Characters of Color
The Luminaries has three characters who aren’t white. Two of them are Chinese and one of them is Maori. We see the blatant racism of the other characters as they engage with Sook Yongsheng, Quee Long, and Te Rau Tauwhare. Some of the characters realize how they don’t see the three men, and then literally, at the end of the main narrative this inability to see people of color works in the favor of one of the men as he fulfills his vengeance. Catton paints a picture of New Zealand that is racist and unwelcoming, then shows us the interior lives of these characters of color as they exist in this world.
Eleanor Catton’s novel deserves the accolades. It blends humor and tragedy, shows us a dizzying number of perspectives, and demonstrates Catton’s ability as a masterful writer. There is one scene in which Walter Moody is being interrogated by Lydia Wells on knowing something that sums up the novel well. Moody smiled. “Why,” he said, “I suppose that to know a thing is to see it from all sides.” Catton allows us to see The Luminaries from all sides. In this same scene, Lydia Wells responds: Your definition leaves much to be desired. There are so many exceptions to the rule! How could one possibly see a spirit from all sides, for example? The notion is incredible.
Can one know a narrative from all sides? Is that an exception or is it something that’s incredible? The real question may be is it necessary?