Monday, 24 March 2014

The Luminaries, by Elenor Catton

Hokitika, New Zealand 1866- the end of the world, for some. For others a chance of reinvention and fortunes to be made through good luck and hard labour. Walter Moody, New Zealand's latest arrival steps ashore, irritable and luggageless, at the peak of the Gold Rush to stake his claim on the goldfield in search of his fortune.

Interrupting a tense and secretive meeting between 12 local men at the Crown Hotel, Walter becomes the accidental audience for their complex narrative. As they take turns to impart their stories, he learns of the unsolved mysteries that have baffled the residents of the burgeoning town- gold lost and found; the dead body of a luckless drunk; a Politician; a suicidal and opium ridden prostitute; a missing wealthy prospector; a shifty sea captain and a conspicuously absent shipping crate. Each is implicated and connected in different ways. Piecing together the testimonies from the 12 stingers, Walter begins to immerse himself in the lives of the Hokitikia prospectors. Catton builds the layers of the plot steadily, using the inner and outer voices of the characters one by one, until the reader is truly the only person with the full picture. Or as full as the picture can be.

I absolutely loved the way that the lives and stories of the 12 characters were wound together in increasingly complicated knots and loops. The descriptive19th Century style that the author uses ensures that the reader has a comprehensive understanding of each of the characters- we understand their moods and motivations, their history, their innermost thoughts and their anxiety at their involvement in an increasingly complicated business. Each character's outlook, prospects and safety depends on their ties and their connections to each other. It's a 12 way dependency and the shifting dynamic of the group is fascinating. The plot winds and loops in increasingly complicated circles. Sometimes it will backtrack and depict and already-seen scene from another perspective. Sometimes from several. But with each loop the reader gains a new perspective on the event, a new insight into a character and another look at the motivations and the loyalties of each of the characters.

The usual reason that I dislike historical fiction is because contemporary authors usually fail spectacularly to recreate the atmosphere and the tone of the era that they are writing about. Just one of the incredible aspects of this book is the skill and accuracy with which Catton manages to replicate Victorian-era style storytelling. It does not feel forced, pretentious or superficial. The pace, the choice of language, the dedication to description and the story within a story technique is perfect. The speech, habits and attitudes of the characters are spot on. If the reader didn't know better, it would be easy to think this was written in 1866, not 2013. The pages just melt away, the beautiful, sweeping descriptions and the intricate thoughts and actions of a complex and diverse cast- it's an absolute pleasure to read: an intricate mystery story of murder, betrayal, revenge and justice.

Hokitika is such a vibrant setting, and it comes alive through Catton's writing almost without thought. Though there are certainly no accidents in this novel, everything is minutely crafted; Hokitika seems to exist already, almost without the need for description. It leaps off the page so easily that it’s hard to believe it's the work of an author at all. The lively bustle feels so effortless: the taverns, the opium dens, ships, offices, brothels and the hotels that they come alive almost on their own, full of smells and sounds and unimportant crowds. It felt like a real place with a true population that continued to exist, to drink and pan for gold after the narrative finished.

Astrology plays an important part in the structure and direction of the novel, and each character is representative of one sign of the zodiac. The twelve sections of the book dwindle as the plot and the moon wanes...each is half the length of the one that came before. However, I chose to place this astrological aspect of the book on a bit of a back-burner and did not consider its significance throughout my reading, being an absolute non-believer in astrology and all types of Zodiac. I'm sure that the addition of this layer simply adds more to the mind blowing complexity of the book for those that choose to pursue it and I wish I could include myself in that group. The plot does not use astrology as a crutch though, and it stands up incredibly well without it. At least for the first 800 pages...

My only disappointment is the singularity of the ending. The only possible explanation that fits the location, actions and injuries of all parties is disappointingly celestial. The idea of celestial twins in present as an idea throughout the latter sections of the book, but when it becomes a fact, the only way to account for everybody, it becomes a disappointment. I would have preferred a choice between this ending and a more corporeal one. It shatters the delicately constructed reality of the rest of the novel.

My muddled thoughts and opinions can't really do justice to the immense and beautiful spectacle of the Luminaries. I read it in 4 sittings in 5 days, such was my desperation to see the mystery unfold and for this amazing web of characters to untangle. Its pace is astonishing, the style is flawless and the plot is spellbinding. I'm lost now I have finished it. Lost and sad that I can never read it for the first time, but itching already to read it for a second.

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