The Luminaries: Sprawling, Difficult, but Worth It

By Eleanor Catton
Little Brown, 849 pages, 9781847054323
* * * *

This 2013 Man Booker Prize winner is just now finding its way into deeper circulation in the United States after having been originally released in New Zealand, by a university press no less! It is, depending on your point of view, either the sort of pretentious pap that the Booker Prize committee loves and most people hate, or a brilliantly conceived and complex novel that deserves every accolade it garners. I am (mostly) of the second view, though I think there are excesses that justify criticism.  

North Americans seldom realize that the California and Yukon gold rushes were part of a global search for "the pure," as characters from The Luminaries call gold. This novel takes place in 1866 in the town of Hokitika. I've been there. Today it's a sleepy town of about 3,000 souls on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island. There are just a handful of places to stay, though it's one of the nicest places to be in an otherwise gritty region. In 1866, though, it too was rough–a boom-town with twice as many people, dozens of ships in its treacherous harbor, and the jumping off point for the region's short-lived gold rush. Think San Francisco about six months after gold was discovered in the American River.

Back then Hokitika was a town of wheeler-dealers, crooks, cranks, ex-convicts, confidence men, prospectors, prostitutes, dreamers, and fools. There were also "Crown men," upright and uptight Victorians who lacked the common sense to know that their imported English values were as useless as broken shovel in a rough-and-tumble frontier gold rush town. Catton takes us inside that world–into the whore houses, the assayer's office, the Chinese tent cities, the instant cottages found in the bush, the local jail (gaol in Brit speak), the numerous hotels lining Revel Street, the grimy dock, and the various merchant shops and government offices set up to fleece the pure from the pockets of the prospectors. Indeed, Catton's sprawling novel is populated by something akin to a prototypical United Nations: Englishmen and women, indigenous Maori, a Jewish newspaper editor, several Chinese characters, a Frenchman, a Norwegian, an Irish English cleric, a Scottish politician, and several whose origins are questionable. It also features fortunes won and misplaced, con jobs, séances, opium, and maybe even some redemption.

Here's where the pretense comes in. The Luminaries features nineteen important characters. Catton uses the device of the Zodiac and gives twelve of them celestial traits. But because the earth was not in the same relative orbital position in 1866, she uses seven other characters to represent five planets, the sun, and the moon to show how their "pull" caused astrological traits to bleed into one another. If that's way too complex for you, just ignore it. It is, indeed, a novelist's device. Maybe Catton feels very clever about all this, but she's writing for herself (and maybe the Booker Prize committee) when she does it. The rest of us will have enough trouble just keeping the characters straight. (Indeed, you should probably buy the paperback rather than the e-book so you can more easily flip back to refresh your memory.)

The Luminaries, at its best, is Dickensian in its character development and labyrinthine twists. It also features something Dickens never managed or dared–two strong, central female characters that spent some time plying the world's oldest profession. Catton, at age 28, is the youngest ever Booker Prize winner. I loved this novel, but The Goldfinch it's not. The latter is also a sprawling novel but it is written in a more mature and confident style that doesn't confuse hooks with contrivances. The Luminaries doesn't need to have as many characters or expend as many pages as it does. As it is, it will frequently astonish, but it will also frustrate. This is the sort of book that will periodically tempt you to give up. Don't–the rewards are worth it and you'll wish to resolve the fates of the characters that really matter (about half of the nineteen). Stay with it even if you, like I, figure out its central mystery before it's revealed.  I wouldn't have bestowed a Booker on The Luminaries, but it certainly shines the merits of (some) memorable characters, its sense of place, and a pretty good mystery. –Rob Weir

Note: For those unfamiliar with the Maori language (most folks, I reckon), here's a small primer to help you with place names. Maori usually divides syllables every two letters unless vowels are side by side, in which case they are elided. A "wh" is usually an "f." Syllables frequently have the same stress. Hokitika is Hō-ki-ti-ka (or hokey-ticka) The major Maori character is Te Rau Tawhare is (roughly) Tě-Răl-Ta-far-ēē and say it fast.

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