The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Warning: semi-plot spoilers ahead. Semi because I don't completely unravel the plot, but spoilers nonetheless because I've thrown loose details here and there.
The feeling that overcame me each time I opened Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries must have been the feeling Bear Grylls got each time he updated his travel vlogs: "This is day six in the safari. Water is running short and progress is slow..."
The 835-page Man Book Prize winning novel has rekindled my fear of big books. The one thing anyone who reads The Luminaries must do can be summarized in two words: keep up.
The novel is set in 19th century New Zealand, the time of the West Coast Gold Rush. Walter Moody arrives at Hoktita hoping to strike gold, but instead finds himself drawn into a complex and intriguing mystery. A certain Emery Staines has vanished; Anna Wetherell, a whore, has been discovered near-death under the effects of opium; Crosbie Wells has been found dead; and these are just some of the circumstances in which we find the 19 characters in the novel.
Of course, the plot thickens and the characters' fates intertwine. A large sum of money seems to have been bequeathed to Anna. Gold coins are sewn into the seams of her dress. A man has assumed a double identity - is he Francis Carver, or Crosbie Wells? Throughout the novel, Catton illuminates these different lives that bring this mystery together. It's impossible for me to give you a satisfactory plot summary - Catton warps time itself in her narrative. There is a strong sense of repetition, of events coming full circle.
The most magical thing about The Luminaries is of course its complex astrological elements, which we are immediately notified of in the "Note to the Reader". Star charts at the beginning of each new part in the novel indicate which characters will be particularly significant in the subsequent chapters. Each of the twelve men that Moody meets upon arriving at Hoktita are linked to a Zodiac sign, which of course indicates something about their inherent natures. Even the structure of the novel, whose chapters grow steadily shorter towards the end, mirrors the waning of a moon (courtesy of Wikipedia). I admit I was a bit flustered upon being left to decipher one-page chapters.
Destiny and fate are therefore important themes in The Luminaries. The characters' lives seem to be "aligned by the stars;" for example, the fortuneteller Lydia Wells rightly remarks that extraordinary things would happen if Emery and Anna (Moon and the Sun) were to meet. Indeed, it is such an encounter that leads Anna to quit whoring and quit opium.
Nationality is also significant in the novel. The Luminaries is set in New Zealand - Te Rau Tauwhare, an aboriginal, seems to flit in and out of the story but always returns with some sort of new perspective or makes a significant discovery. Hongkongers in the Chinatown such as Ah Sook are also the primary opium dealers in the novel, and often converse in Cantonese throughout the novel. Both Tauwhare and Sook are regarded differently by the others - regarded as enigmas, or even liars. Catton paints the faint undercurrent of discrimination quite well. So The Luminaries transcends not only time but nationalities, too, and such intertwining is what makes the novel all the more intriguing and complex.
Finally, the theme of women in the novel is also noteworthy. Anna Wetherell and Lydia Wells, the only two women in the novel, are distinct but key in the unravelling of the mystery. Anna, of course, is at its center. Although a whore and thereby resented by Francis Carver, she is arguably the most important character in the novel. Nearly all of the men have had relationships with her, are fascinated with her, or depend on her in some way. Clinch is borderline in love with her. Ah Sook nearly goes mental when he thinks that she is dead. Lydia, the fortuneteller, also commands a sort of unquestionable authority which - when matched with her cunning - is dangerous.
The Luminaries is driven almost entirely by dialogue, which - when coupled with its length - makes it a thoroughly challenging read. Trying to keep tabs on who thinks what of whom is difficult enough, not to mention keeping track of the constantly shifting interpretations the men devise.
Aware that the only thing standing between me and the rest of my to-read list was The Luminaries, I considered calling it quits. But I soldiered on because I couldn't help not finding out what would happen to Anna's unclaimed fortune, or what would happen to Emery staines. All I knew was that by the time I was 600 pages in, The Luminaries became both frustrating and irresistible.
I often questioned the legitimacy of the plot's development; my mind was predominantly cluttered with the many voices of the many characters; but even so I can't help but marvel at Catton's skill for melding so many lives and mysteries into such a work. I can't say I've completely processed the novel's denouement - and I don't think I will attempt to anytime soon.
Nonetheless, The Luminaries is a testament to thick books and a wild imagination. It is a novel one must tackle with stamina, patience and persistence.
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