Fascinating for me to pick up the 2013 Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, just after putting down the very Victorian Middlemarch. The new book is 47 pages longer, so you might argue I was in training for it. Catton, a Canadian born and educated writer now living in New Zealand has set her book there in Victorian times, 1865/66 when men of all classes came to the country intent on discovering a ‘homeward bounder’; a strike that would earn them enough to go back home to a life of ease and comfort. And where there are fortunes to be made, there are others willing to relieve the diggers of their bonanzas by fair means or foul.
The first time I walloped through the book, desperately trying to pick the winner from the short list before it was announced (and getting it wrong), I was somewhat put off by the structure and the use of astrology charts at the beginning of each section of the book. Like the phases of the moon, the parts (chapters) start with a full 360 pages and then ‘wane’ to a single page. Reading this time with more care and attention, I am still not drawn into the astrological decoration but I have been completely overwhelmed by the quality of Catton’s plotting, structure and language of the story; English, with occasional New Zealand Maori and Cantonese. With the discursive abilities of George Eliot, or possibly a better comparison would be Wilkie Collins, Catton’s first chapter, ‘A Sphere within a sphere’, develops the events of a single day, 27 January 1866, in the gold rush port of Hokitika on the western, Tasman Sea coast of South Island where, to this day, there is a shipwreck memorial testifying to the difficulties of crossing the bar in stormy weather, where one can stand on Gibson Quay or walk up Revell-street. The story then is physically grounded in reality despite its astrologic surface decoration.
In this first chapter, we interrupt the twelve luminaries, Hokitika residents, holding a private meeting in the Crown Hotel when Walter Moody, a Scottish lawyer, ferried ashore that very day after a stormy and frightening passage on the Godspeed that will itself be wrecked on the bar, unwittingly enters and puts a momentary freeze on their conversation until one of them talks with Moody and the others are then persuaded to reveal their separate stories for appraisal and comment by this thirteenth person in the room. All of them seem to have some relationship with an unfortunate whore, Anna Weatherall, who has been found on the street unconscious and incapable, probably due to the effects of opium, and a former digger turned timber merchant, Crosbie Wells, who has just been found dead in his cabin with a fortune in retorted gold hidden away. With great skill, Catton manages both to thicken the plot and bring out the details that enable the reader to know what they need to know about all twenty characters in the book.
Subsequent chapters move backwards and forwards between dates in 1865 and 1866 (intriguingly, the book ends before it begins) and slowly peel layers of the onion to reveal more of the truth, the half-truths, and the downright lies they all tell and something of their motives and motivations. Some ‘facts’ are, in the end, never explained and the reader will need to formulate his or her own explanation or rationalisation of events, such as the death in a closed paddy wagon of one of the characters. When the (gold) dust settles, I think we have a wonderful book here, with much authentic period detail woven among sparkling language and literary ingenuity, that it is not hard to see how The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker prize for 2013.