The Luminaries


Oh, but I’ve got a great one for you.

People often ask me what they should read, which releases a torrent of character analysis, faulty memory, and hopeful guesswork in my head. I love to be asked, but the truth is that you can never be sure what a person will like. One person’s To Kill a Mockingbird is another person’s The Casual Vacancy (I know, I know, it’s been 15 months, but I can’t get over it.)

But regardless of who you are, I’m here to tell you something. Drop your sandwich, flee the house (with or without shoes), head straight to your bookshop and get your paws on this pale, modestly jacketed, Booker-Prize-winning wonder.

Astonishingly for a book this complex, Catton has said that she started writing without having worked out the twists and turns of the plot. She did, however, have a very specific dichotomy in mind:

I was really interested in the struggle between plot and structure … it was starting to bother me that these sort of things were always seen as opposites … I wanted to see if I could write a book which did both, where the plot didn’t win out above the structure, and the structure didn’t win out above the plot.” (Source, from 1m 38s)

Catton succeeds – and how. But the fascinating thing about the exploration of plot and structure in The Luminaries is that they aren’t equally weighted throughout. As the novel progresses, it shifts its bulk from the pole of plot to the pole of structure. What begins as a Wilkie Collins style classic set-up – man walks into a bar and disturbs secret council meeting, triggering the revelation of a story of murder, opium trafficking, prostitutes, gold and ships – slowly turns into an elliptical, fractured, delicately personal Modernist story. It’s the handling of this movement which lifts The Luminaries beyond the excellent adventure tale that it is into something seriously special.

The main means by which this is achieved is a structural device is one I appreciated clearly only in retrospect: like the waning moon (the book jacket should have given me the hint), The Luminaries is made up of sections which are progressively smaller. In fact, each section is roughly half the length of that which precedes it. The monster opening section takes up half of the book and shows the writing at its most Victorian. It is a tour de force of characterisation and plotting as 13 characters in (and out of) turn gradually unfold a complicated story centring around 5 additional major characters. Catton’s encapsulation of each man in turn (both visually and in character) achieves the near-impossible of making each distinct and pretty much memorable despite the proliferation of named characters. Here’s a typical delicate observation from the opening pages: “Moody was not unaware of the advantage his inscrutable grace afforded him. Like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior.

It is from the end of this initial section that form begins to make its mark. Rather than continuing the fellowship of these men, the book begins a backwards movement that is sustained until its final pages. As The Guardian review has said: “It is a curious act of double-writing that Catton has achieved – that she could write more and more about a thing, only to have it matter less and less. The characters don’t gain depth as the story proceeds; they slip further away from us. The more words given to them, the less we know anything much about them.” Near the end of the first section, the outsider protagonist Moody notes that none of the assembled men are actually at the heart of the story, and indeed we see very little more of some of the men we have invested in as the book moves on. Instead of the council of 12 advancing, Victorian style, on the truth, the novel begins ever so slowly to fracture. By the end we may know (most of) the truth, but it’s hard to tell which characters do.

As the sections shorten, the pace increases and the long, Victorian characterisations disappear. At first you barely notice, but by the final 100 pages the sections begin to pile up on one another. A much remarked on device is the little summary, George Eliot style, which begins each chapter: “In which a mystery is solved” sort of thing. These gradually grow and grow to eclipse the text they are supposedly summarising, until they are revealing the final twists of the story and leaving the text itself to Modernist absence, gestures and feeling. But this isn’t the triumph of structure over plot – Catton’s brilliance is in making it all a part of the whole, a natural progression that is getting more truthful even as it becomes more obscure.

I should note that the main structural device is the linking of the different characters and locations with different celestial bodies – a thick layer of complexity should you wish to study it but not one that actively impacts the typical reader. I should also note that the whole shabang is bloody complicated. I found myself walking down the street attempting to tell the contorted, multi-voiced story in chronological order, and constantly finding bits I’d forgotten in the melee: “But where did the bullet go? … No, I’ve missed out the lost shipping crate … Was this before or after the mine was purchased?” This isn’t so much a critique of the novel as a warning – it’s not a lazy read and you need a fair bit of tenacity. But if you’re up for the challenge, you’ll be rewarded.

The Luminaries is a Victorian novel being eaten by a Modernist novel. It may be a gastronomic anomaly, but it’s produced the best work of 2013.


7 thoughts on “The Luminaries

  1. Brilliant review! I must be honest – all that playing with the structure makes me shudder – the kind of thing I normally hate. But I’m hoping Santa might bring me the book and now at least I have some idea of what to expect. Forewarned is forearmed! 😉

    1. The great thing is that the structure creeps up on you while you’re enjoying the story, and it really does complement it! Good luck with your Christmas stocking 😉

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