Halfway through Eleanor Catton’s hugely ambitious and largely enjoyable second novel, a single word threatens to send the book powering off in a completely new direction. It’s testament to Catton’s control over her book that it doesn’t cause anything like the possible meltdown – but it’s what makes The Luminaries, for me, something of a missed opportunity.
This 900 page-long, Man Booker-longlisted second novel – following Catton’s superb 2008 debut The Rehearsal – is set in New Zealand, at the time of the mid-19th century gold rushes. It’s 1866 when would-be prospector Walter Moody arrives in the town of Hoikitika, and happens immediately upon a meeting of twelve local men in a hotel. Recent events are of grave concern to these men: a prospector’s body has been discovered in his cottage, a whore has been found unconscious in the middle of the road, and there are murmurs of larceny and intrigue afoot. These twelve have taken it upon themselves to pool what they know, and solve an ever-expanding mystery.
The Luminaries is a perfect pastiche of a certain kind of nineteenth-century literature – somewhere between the sensation fiction of Mrs Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and early detective fiction such as Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. All the favourite elements turn up: we have opium, mistaken identities, shipwrecks, letters that fail to meet their intended recipient, internecine legal struggles… Whenever a new character enters a scene, a loving description of their appearance ensues, and Catton isn’t afraid to draw her characters rather broadly: the villain of the piece, one Francis Carver, not only has a villain’s surname, but an Evil Physical Attribute, a vicious scar on his face (this at least does not go unexplained). Where there are ingenious conceits – the preferred method of smuggling gold should not be spoiled in a review – there’s creaky plotting too: one character inexplicably keeps a set of incriminating letters about his person for another investigator to discover. And, for total Victorian-era verisimilitude, when characters utter mild expletives, the omniscient “we” voice that tells the story ensures that every “damn” is censored to a “d––n”. The purpose of The Luminaries seems at times to be to pretend that modernity never happened.
At other points, though, Catton does exciting things, remodelling the kind of story this type of novel would traditionally have told. While there’s a strong trend in some 19th century literature towards a sort of earnest social commentary – “fallen” women become tragic figures to shame other characters, and the reader by extension, for judging them ill – Catton leaps over this and makes prostitute Anna Wetherall one of her central characters, something no 19th-century author would have dared do (and those authors would never have cheerfully used the straightforward word “whore” to describe such as Anna). Other marginalised figures like Chinese “hatters” (solitary gold-diggers) and a Maori character, Te Rau Tauwhare, would likely be treated by even the most enlightened Victorian novelist as ciphers, or worse; here they are as central to this narrative as anyone else. This is all well and good, but if part of the novel’s job is to bring us news from elsewhere – from 1860s New Zealand in this case – it’s a newsflash 150 years late.
Every “damn” is censored to a “d––n”. The purpose of The Luminaries seems at times to be to pretend that modernity never happened
And then, around the midpoint, comes the tremor, in an electrifying scene between Carver and the newspaperman Löwenthal. The latter suspects the former of disguising his identity, to some malevolent end. Carver listens to the newspaperman’s none-too-subtle hints at his suspicions, growing steadily angrier, until it comes his turn to speak. What he says to Löwenthal is, “‘You’ll shut your f–––ing mouth.’” It’s censored in the text but it’s somehow as shocking as if it were spelled out – an irruption from quite another place and time. Aha, I thought: here’s where Catton is going to turn inside out the scenario she’s carefully contrived (remembering again The Rehearsal, a brilliant puzzle-box in which reality mimics art that’s mimicking reality, in increasingly recursive ways). But no: on the book goes for a further 400+ pages, Carver’s snarl one of a few moments in which we sense the author’s interest lies in anything other than this Victorian-age ventriloquism. (Another is the delightful way the introductory notes to chapters – “In which we learn…” – begin, towards the end, to take on a playful life of their own.)
This is a long book, and like many such, it struggles at times to earn its duration. A lengthy courtroom scene some six hundred pages in left me irritated and bored. As the book goes on, too, you sense flagging commitment on the part of the author; where earlier the limpid prose glisters with precise observations and beautiful images – I especially liked the description of a type of wood that “answers well to a knife” – by the midpoint Catton is starting to employ sentences of the “All of a sudden he gave a murmur of surprise” variety. Poetry begins to desert her.
The other, major, issue I had was to do with the book’s use of the zodiac and astrological charts as an organising structure. Each of the principle characters has a zodiac sign associated with them, and a “House” (a significant geographical location), and thus a chapter with the title “Venus in Capricorn” tells us that the focus will be on the character of the justice’s clerk Aubert Gascoigne, whose astrological symbol is Capricorn; as to where the Venus element comes into it, your guess is as good as mine. Catton has evidently put immense effort into this structure, but it is not, for this reader at least, a comprehensible or even a very enthralling device; for instance, no doubt the relevance of Venus to the “Venus in Capricorn” chapter can be “decoded”, but since astrology is pure bunkum, why should anyone bother?
If the purpose is to suggest – as the book’s superstructure does, spending two thirds of its time in 1866 then travelling backwards to 1865 to show some formative events whose consequences we’ve already seen – that these people’s lives are prey to strange forces and cosmic arrangements, unfurling from the slightest of chances, the most random of meetings, well, so what? This is a novel: of course its characters’ destinies look as though some vast overseeing presence has manipulated them. (Alternatively, if Catton has used carefully researched charts to work out how her characters should interact and their fates play out, as though “random”, the effect has proven indiscernible from the plotting one would expect of a novelist anyway.)
What we’re left with, then, is the work of a ferociously talented author undertaking a project that shows off only some of her powers. For pure page-turning enjoyment, little can rival much of The Luminaries; Catton’s confident handling of more than a dozen main characters looks like justifiable grandstanding (few second-time-out authors would embark on something this panoramic and populous), and scene after scene is vivid, engrossing, surprising. And yet the book still seems to me a vastly – and I do mean vastly – squandered opportunity nonetheless. The final section – these get exponentially shorter, waning like the phases of the moon on the book’s splendid jacket, and folding in on themselves until their originating scene is reached – reveals that Catton has taken 900 pages to tell a story that, albeit never less than tremendously enjoyable in her telling, was hackneyed even when Shakespeare employed it: the plight of the star-crossed lovers. C