Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Gold, prosperity, status, a chance to prove oneself, a chance to free oneself – New Zealand offers fresh opportunities for the brave and willing. The Luminaries conjures up a world you will never visit. Set in the rugged West Coast town of Hokitika during the 1860’s gold rush, its location may be familiar but it’s a setting far removed in time and possibility.

Catton’s majestic novel deals with human nature, freedom, and constraints in a uniquely structured 800 page epic. The characters you meet are described in detail, and yet they are not quite real people. This is a story using astrologically influenced personalities who are let loose in a landscape that offers the chance for them to believe that their dreams can come true and that they can reconstruct themselves as they choose.

Coming from near and far, these disparate characters converge on the small township, all with their own particular reasons for being there. It is a land sparsely populated and they expect plenty of opportunities to come their way, with no one and nothing to restrain them, except the forces of nature and the limits of their own grit. That is the illusion, and it is the dispelling of this illusion that is the driving force of the novel.

As the story unfolds (and is retold), it is clear that instead of freedom, the characters have quickly started to gravitate toward one another, with weaker characters being drawn into the orbits of the more forceful. At the heart of the novel is a murder mystery, and the old world plot, historical setting, and language lulls you into believing that revelations will fall into your lap with the regular rhythm of each chapter’s close.

But Catton’s astronomically derived structure provides periods of confusion and you are reminded that you need to work, like the old diggers, to sift for crucial nuggets of understanding.  There are parts of plot and themes running throughout the book that aren’t fully articulated. It is a novel which toys with the idea of a destiny that is already writ and there is something objective and dispassionate about the creaking machinations of the plot, which conjures to mind the vastness of the universe and the smallness of the human experience. But overall, whether it was by intention or not, it isn’t the plot or theme, but the elusive and atmospheric nature of the story that lingers in the mind. The Luminaries is a unique literary creation by a young and talented author.

Reviewed by Spot

Eleanor Catton is the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize - read more
Catalogue Link:  The Luminaries 

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