by Eleanor Catton
An intriguing book, which I found compelling, almost in spite of myself.
It is very long (more than 800 pages) and quite daunting, with a large cast of characters. The story unfolds slowly at first, and speeds up dramatically towards the end. The book is very tightly structured, with its twelve ‘parts’ each relating to incidents on a particular day, and the ‘chapters’ relating a specific incident or a couple of related incidents. Each chapter heading is followed by a summary of the content of the chapter, in true nineteenth-century style, and the language used throughout is clearly aimed to make the reader feel that they are reading a contemporary account.
The story picks up speed as its threads are brought together towards the end of the book, with the last few parts giving the story of the various characters in the months preceding the events that the main story relates. And in the last few chapters, the “In which…” preamble tells the reader more than the text itself.
Some of these devices seem to me rather contrived; and the astrological theme running through the book in its chapter headings and elegantly drawn charts adds nothing at all to the story or its characters, in my view. I couldn’t really work out why the author had chosen to use this device. Surely the story tells itself adequately through the actual text.
The setting – a New Zealand ‘gold rush town’ in the 1860s – is wholly convincing. Every detail of landscape, seascape, buildings, interiors, costumes, daily tasks and even attitudes is convincingly drawn, and sings from the page. The characters are just as convincing. I’m asking myself whether the way that we know, almost from the first, who are the ‘goodies’ and who the ‘baddies’, detracts from the story at all. I have come to the conclusion that it does not. No one comes out as wholly good – unless perhaps it is Anna and Staines, who turn out to be the ‘luminaries’ of the title, and Walter Moody, who is something of a God-like figure. Though even he has a murky past.
Are there some unnecessary elements in the story, or indeed unnecessary characters? Possibly, but I don’t feel that the story is weighed down by them. Each character is interesting, and each has a part to play. The juxtaposition of a cast of people whose lives cross at several unrelated intersections seems to me wholly plausible, especially in such a small, isolated community.
The Luminaries tells how individual choices and actions can have a knock-on effect far beyond what we might envisage. A person whose behaviour is generally selfless can make a mistake with devastating consequences. A person who wishes to right a wrong done to them can inadvertently and unknowingly (or unthinkingly) do great harm to someone else. It is not the stars that determine our fate: it is our own actions and those of other people.