Available from McClelland & Stewart
opens with Walter Moody innocently entering the smoking room of the Crown Hotel in the mining community of Hokitika on New Zealand’s west shore. The year is 1866 — while Moody has trained as a lawyer back home in the Mother country, he has just arrived in the port, following his father and brother to the colonies to seek his fortune as a hardscrabble miner in the latest gold boom where economic security for a lifetime is just one lucky nugget find away.
It is also fair to say that he is young enough to want some adventure before settling down and (conveniently for both author and reader) the crew in the room at the Crown will provide it:
The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportments and dress — frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill — they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway — deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.
Indeed, Moody has stumbled upon a hastily-called conference whose participants have immediately retreated into silence upon his entry. Two weeks earlier, three things happened on a single night in Hokitika. A drunken hermit, Charlie Wells, was found dead in his cabin outside the town — the presence of a phial of laudanum and, even more important, £4,000 worth of smelted gold hidden away has made his demise suspicious. His body was found by Alistair Lauderback and his aides who are on their way across the mountain pass above the village — the West Canterbury area has earned a seat in Parliament and Lauderback is seeking to become its first member. Lauderback also features in the discovery of the second happening:
On the outskirts of Hokitika their company was further delayed. As they advanced upon the township they came upon a woman, utterly insensate and soaking wet, lying in the middle of the thoroughfare. She was alive, but only barely. Lauderback guessed that she had been drugged, but he could not elicit any kind of intelligence from her beyond a moan. He dispatched his aides to find a duty sergeant, lifted her body out of the mud, and, while he waited for his aides to return, reflected that his electoral campaign was off to a rather morbid start. The first three introductions he would make, in town, would be with the magistrate, the coroner, and the editor of the West Coast Times.
The woman is Anna Wetherell, a fairly recent (and very attractive) addition to the town’s supply of whores. She is charged with attempted suicide, once she comes to in the town gaol.
The third event of that evening is the disappearance of the town’s richest man, Emery Staines, a prospector in his early 20s who has found enormous fortune with some very significant strikes. No one knows whether he is dead, missing or simply departed back home.
A lot of questions have been raised during the two weeks since those events and each of the 12 men in the smoking room at the Crown has reason to be concerned. None is definitely guilty of anything, but each might be guilty of something — and collectively they might be guilty of a lot. While they had gathered to discuss strategy, the device of Moody’s uninvited arrival gives the author the chance to have a number of them relate their part in the background of the story. The group is a disparate lot — a banker, hotelier, shipping agent, Anna’s whoremaster (himself a goldfields magnate), and a Chinese who runs the local opium den are just a sampling of the spread.
Since the most readily apparent distinctive feature of The Luminaries is its length (832 pages), I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that it takes author Catton 360 pages to set the elements of her plot in place through the telling of those stories at the Crown. After all, if you are reading the book itself, you can physically tell that you still are not half way through by the time that first section is completed. The two excerpts that I have quoted illustrate her attention to detail on the micro-level — rest assured, she is equally as assiduous when it comes to character and the nuances of plot.
Having said that, don’t let the prospect of length put you off (unless, of course, the cascading sentence in that first excerpt has already done that — if it has, give the novel a miss). The Luminaries is a Victorian-style novel in the tradition of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life or one of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester books in that it chronicles the tale of an entire community with a large cast of characters, each of whom is given significant attention — although Catton’s community is a rough-and-tumble mining town not a class- and cleric-dominated English shire.
Indeed, perhaps a better comparison would be some recent Victorian-style mysteries such as Sarah Waters The Little Stranger or D.J. Taylor’s Derby Day both of which also found favor with Booker Prize juries and earned a place on the shortlist. These kind of novels may not be to everyone’s taste, but when well-executed they certainly impress some.
I have noted in my reviews of some other 2013 Booker titles that this year’s jury has an affection for books that use an uncommon structure: jury chair Robert Macfarlane confirmed that when the shortlist was announced this week, taking pride that they had produced a list of “novel novels”.
The Luminaries is one of those, employing a device I have certainly not seen before: Catton uses the golden ratio when it comes to determining the length of her chapters. There are 12: the first is 360 pages long, the second 158, the third 104 — and then you come to the tenth at 8, the 11th 6, the last 3. While that makes for some heavy sledding in the first few sections, it does have an interesting side effect. I can’t believe I am writing this, but the final 150 pages positively galloped along.
There is another aspect of The Luminaries on which I am totally unqualified to comment that deserves mention. You may notice from the review that there were 12 men in the Crown smoking room and 12 sections to the book. The novel has an astrological side as well: each section is introduced with an astrological chart, those 12 men each have a related house (both in the sky and on the ground) and sub-chapter headings continue the theme (“Jupiter in Sagittarius” is an example). My lack of interest in astrology is exceeded only by my complete lack of knowledge of it — those with interest and knowledge may find a theme that completely passed me by.
Eleanor Catton made a major splash with her first novel The Rehearsal, published when she was just 23 — you can count me as one of those who was mightily impressed as you can tell from my review. She is only 28 now and can already add a Booker short-listing to her resume. Not just that, but this novel, with its historical theme and all its complexity, is completely different from The Rehearsal. No one call tell at this point whether she is just experimenting with form or whether she intends to keep on doing that. What cannot be denied is that she is a young author of enormous talent — while either (or both) her books might not suit your taste, they are exceptionally well done.
Catton was raised in New Zealand and resides there now (although she wrote The Luminaries while at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop), but she was born in Canada and retains citizenship — which makes this novel Giller eligible. We will find out on Monday next if this year’s Giller jury (Margaret Atwood, Esi Edugyan and Jonathan Lethem) is as enthusiastic with this “novel novel” as the Booker Jury is. Personally, despite the non-Canadian subject matter, I would be surprised if it does not show up on the Giller longlist.