A Constellation of Words: The Luminaries

About three years ago I entered a bookshop in Quebec City with the sole intention to buy a book in French. I must say I failed miserably and bought a beautiful copy of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries* instead. I did buy some books in French later, but I am ashamed to admit that my French hasn’t improved much. I remember reading the first few pages of The Luminaries and liking it, but thinking that it required more attention that I could give it at the time of the trip, and so I decided to read it back home.

As it often happens, once I got back home the book ended on my nightstand for a long time before being relocated in my room and bookshelves several times. I did not attempt to read it again until this week when I didn’t feel like reading any of the books I have recently bought ran out of reading material. I’m glad I did.

The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and made Eleanor Catton the youngest author to have ever received it (she was 28). And what a novel it is! I can’t but wonder at Catton’s organisational skills, putting together such an intricately structured novel must be really hard. The book is about a series of crimes taking place in 1866 in Hokitika, New Zealand. Although seemingly disconnected, we begin to discover that these crimes and other strange events are in fact closely related. The novel is a wonderful mystery set in New Zealand’s Gold Rush, in which millionaires, bank clerks, whores and sea captains are involved.

The book begins with an assembly. Twelve men whose reputations have been compromised by the recent events—among them a disappearance, the attempted murder of a whore and the death of a hermit— gather at the local pub to share their knowledge and try to make sense of the events. There, they’re interrupted by a newcomer, Walter Moody, who seems to be himself afflicted by something. As the men start talking, the story begins to unravel.

What is striking about these stories is the manner in which they’re introduced. The book’s narrative comprises only a few dates from the 27th of January 1866 onwards. However, as the characters start telling their stories, we are taken back and forth in time, hearing different angles of every situation. Catton’s style is exquisite, combining some elements from 19th-century novels—I was reminded a bit of Anne Brontë and George Elliot— with whimsical and mysterious commentaries that resonate with the book’s astronomical theme.

The book’s grounding in astrology and astronomy makes it such a complex and interesting read. First off, every one of the 12 characters reunited at the inn is related to a different Zodiac sign. Also, each chapter is called after some astronomical phenomenon: as the novel advances, we get to link the celestial bodies’ positions with the decisions, dispositions and paths of each of the characters.

The plot of the novel is very intricate, crafted with such care that it resembles the internal mechanism of a clock: every turn of events influences a range of other events that in turn influence others. In the end, the fates of twelve strangers looking for fortunes in New Zealand’s gold turn out to be very much connected, in ways they can’t even begin to understand.

Needless to say, I was fascinated by this novel. I am still in awe at the way it is organised, but more so at how it manages to be a such a page-turner despite its complexity: it has a lot of characters, around 800 pages, various settings and the reader has to keep in mind many dates (and planets and signs, really) just to keep up. And yet there’s so much precision and beauty in its descriptions and so much intrigue in its plot that one can’t help but keep reading.

I am very happy to have read it and a bit sad that it is over. I can’t wait to read Catton’s other works. Have you read The Luminaries? What did you think of it? I am currently starting with The Secret History* by Donna Tartt, another book I have been meaning to read for a while. I am reading it for the Penguin Reading Challenge! You can join here to receive a list of books to choose from every month.

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