With her sophomore novel, The Luminaries, New Zealand’s Eleanor Catton impressed the judges of the Man Booker Prize; in 2013 she became the youngest ever to win this prestigious literary award.
In the mid 19th century, Walter Moody finds himself travelling to Hotikita (NZ) where he plans to try his luck at gold prospecting. Upon arrival, he encounters a complex mystery: a rich young man has vanished, an old, drunkard prospector has been murdered and a prostitute is found unconscious near the scene of the crime.
Moody is intrigued by the events and endeavours to help the party of twelve townsmen who meet to unravel what has happened. What follows is a whodunit wherein the reader soon realises that nothing is what it seems and that all the details and characters in the plot are far more connected than they first appear.
The Luminaries is the product of a masterful architecture. Catton based the men of the twelve head council on the twelve zodiac signs, both in their character and the way they interact with each other. The seven other main characters are based on heavenly bodies in the solar system and their characteristics.
Further, the overall structure of the book is based on the lunar cycle wherein the first part, the full moon, is massive and well lit and the last part, the new moon, is short, dense, obscure and dark. This process from light to dark is also the process the reader endures. On one hand, more and more is revealed about the events in Hotikita, while on the other, it seems that the more that is revealed, the less certain the reader becomes.
In the beginning, the reader is called to identify with Moody; it is his perspective we follow. Before the reader realises it, however, Moody is sucked in to the plot and the reader starts questioning what was introduced about him in the beginning. Through many perspective changes, the reader becomes more and more suspicious of what characters are revealing to the stage and begins to suspect that none of the protagonists can be trusted.
There is no doubt that Catton is an extremely gifted young woman. The Luminaries is a breathtaking literary construct and this reviewer likely missed much of its genius complexity. However, much like music can be an impressive symphony without touching the audience’s soul, The Luminaries – though very impressive – is not a book that achieves this lofty goal of all great art. Catton simply does not succeed in establishing a strong connection between reader and character. The reading becomes a process of deciphering rather than identifying. The puzzling is engaging, but it is not transforming like many of the books I love. The Luminaries does not make you a different person; and that is exactly what truly great literature can do. At its heart, The Luminaries is a love story. But it is a love story I did not care about; I cared about solving the mystery. I prefer to care about people.
Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (London: Granta, 2013)