Convoluted and confusing, The Luminaries is certainly challenging. The fact it’s 832 pages long adds weight [sic] to the argument. But this Gothic monster of a book is also a joy of storytelling, characterisation and language.
The 2013 Man Booker Prize winner does, in its first 300 pages or so, require considerable investment.
Newly arrived in the southern New Zealand port of Hokitika in 1866, barrister Walter Moody, looking to make his fortune prospecting for gold, inadvertently stumbles into a secret meeting of 12 respected members of the local community.
What unfolds is an extraordinary tale of murder, mayhem and mischief as each man tells their tale of events of the past few weeks. Behind a series of unsolved crimes is a complex mystery. All appear to be connected but, like a difficult jigsaw puzzle, needs to be painstakingly put together. And it’s apparent there are still a few pieces missing.
It’s the sheer number of strands revealed at this initial meeting that require attention and the patience of Job.
The banker, the chemist, the court clerk, the shipping agent and more have their say. And the evidence of those not present at the meeting is also crucial. The politician, the whore, the sea captain, the missing entrepreneur all have a role to play in events in the rough and ready gold rush port. Suspicions abound, but what’s not clear – to anyone – is what’s going on!
The second half of the book is set in real time – and advances at a cracking pace. The unexplained events and unsolved crimes start to fall into place as the jigsaw nears completion: The Luminaries becomes a page-turning gold rush tale, its finale a Hollywood-style courtroom scene.
But Eleanor Catton hasn’t simply written a Wilkie Collins-esque, nineteenth century potboiler. Her fascination with astrology and the signs of the Zodiac pattern the intricate structure of the novel.
Each section (twelve in all) is exactly half of its predecessor, mimicking the waning of the lunar cycle: the twelve men are each assigned a sign of the Zodiac and display the characteristics of their sign: the luminaries of the title – sun and moon – are the whore (Anna) and the missing entrepreneur (Emery). It is the movement of the heavens that determines the interaction between the characters.
The mimicking of the lunar cycle certainly adds to that thrilling page-turning as the reveal gains momentum. But in all honesty, the significance of the planetary configurations passed me by. This astrological framing adds little – whether the shipping agent, Balfour, is a Libran or Piscean matters not: I did not dwell on the horoscope charts at the start of each section or take note of the chapter titles referencing zodiac signs.
As a thriller, the meticulously plotted The Luminaries is compulsive. But its problem is the beginning, the first (long) section. The sheer number of characters resulted in a confusion of the crowd, each becoming indiscernible from the other. This is where that investment of effort, energy and time is needed. It is worthwhile – but understandable if the decision is that it’s all too difficult.