The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Featuring a rogues gallery of glorious characters, this complex story of death, drugs and disappearance in the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s is one of those chunky novels that has the power to transport you to a different time. Joyful storytelling and skilful handling of complex character relationships.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 832 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Granta
ISBN: 978-1847084316

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Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries is set in the New Zealand gold rush of the late 1860s. It's a story about greed, power, gold, dreams, opium, secrets, betrayal and identity, but most of all, it's a celebration of the art of story telling, both in terms of Catton's book and the stories her characters have to tell. It's the kind of book that is perfect escapism and which wraps you up in its world. If you like big, chunky books that you can get lost in for hours, then this is one for you.

Second novels are notoriously tricky, especially when they follow one that has received the critical acclaim that Catton had for her debut, The Rehearsal. Fortunately, no one seems to have told Catton this and The Luminaries is a very different style of book but one that is an even more remarkable and memorable achievement. Also notable is Catton's writing style. This was the standout feature of her debut novel and this is equally stylish but in a very different way. There are hints and nods to some great writers both period and more modern throughout, notably a touch of Charles Dickens, a splash of Wilkie Collins, a smidgeon of Robert Louis Stevenson, a dash of Salman Rushdie and a hint of David Mitchell, yet all combined in a freshness that is uniquely Catton's. It's more homage than a plagiarism of style. The one element that is common to both this and The Rehearsal is what comes over as the author's sheer love of story telling - there's a constant sense of fun in her descriptions and she writes as if she has a smile on her face and is as entranced by the story that is being set down as her readers are.

The opening scene accounts for the first 300 pages as the story is introduced from different perspectives, but essentially Walter Moody arrives in the small gold rush town of Hokitika and settles into one of the more basic hotels only to find that he has interrupted a clandestine meeting of twelve very different people who are all in some way linked to the death of a local hermit, the apparent suicide attempt by the local 'lady of the old profession' as the judge (yes, there's a classic courtroom scene as well) will later term her and the disappearance of a young, successful and very rich prospector on one eventful night.

The webs of relationships between these twelve men and the victims are complex and at first take a bit of concentration but Catton is alert to this and offers frequent summaries and in particular a rather fuller précis towards the end of this first part to make sure that the reader has picked up on all the salient relationships. The web of intrigue is part of the joy of the book and some you won't fully discover until much later on.

The book then jumps forward a month for a couple of parts before moving back to the past. The past chapters are much, much briefer and this change of style is one that you will either love or hate I suspect. It's one of the more modern touches to what otherwise feels like a very traditional narrative voice.

Although I absolutely loved the book, this was despite two aspects that might prove more of an obstacle for other readers. Firstly, while Catton's descriptions of people's characters are an absolute joy, she is guilty of telling the reader rather than showing. In many ways this is unavoidable with the size of her cast and this is very much an ensemble piece so to show each character trait would be challenging and slow the plot down.

The other aspect that failed to really gel with me is the astrological framework of the book which frames each part. Catton explains that she is more interested in this as a device for exploring character traits rather than any form of belief in determinism, but the device is so subtle that the reader is largely unaware of the relevance. I can see the use of the framework to the writer but I'm less convinced about the need to make this element so explicit, but that's down to my own personal taste.

The quality of the Booker long list seems to have become more erratic in recent years, but The Luminaries would not look out of place on the short list of even the vintage years. Definitely recommended.

Our grateful thanks to the kind people at Granta for sending us this golden nugget of a book.

This is not the first gold rush story to feature on the Booker lists, with The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt featuring on the 2011 short list. Harvest by Jim Crace remains the clear bookies favourite to take the prize this year, but The Luminaries will provide stiff opposition in my opinion.

Booklists.jpg The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is in the Man Booker Prize 2013.

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