Eleanor Catton. The Luminaries. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2013.
This review began on Facebook. And I remind any reader of this blog that I do not strive for deep literary critique. My bent is escapist crime fiction that truly absorbs me. I do feel obliged, though, to check the bestseller and prize lists from time to time. In this case it was unfair to have no warning that Man-Booker prize-winning The Luminaries is a ten-pound doorstopper (I rarely read other reviews in advance, keeping my shallow mind open). But ah, I had seen the occasional FB friend drop a remark about the impossibility of it all ... not to mention the uncomfortable aspect of reading in bed.
Hokitika is a gold rush town in western New Zealand, 1860s. By page 150 (of 800) my head was swimming with an enormous cast of confusing characters in interminable discussion of their recent events without explaining anything to me. By page 250 I still had no clue who these people were or what the plot was. I understand some readers fell by the wayside long before that. There's a limit to the attention span amidst excessive verbiage and often exquisite Victorian manners. Nevertheless, with some judicious speed reading over the painfully detailed physical and psychological profiles of something like sixteen characters, by about page 350 I was committed.
There is a crime needing solving, you see. The whole works is no end challenging, because of the novel's complicated structure.
To stay the course, you must accept the sensibilities of the times. You must accept that there will be a back story for many of the characters, each adding another perspective or more perplexities to the overall mysteries. You will find the chronology is not linear so just accept that too. You can skip some boring parts like how to typeset a newspaper or how to pan a river for gold (because you already know those things, right?). The author could have ditched the astrological pinnings in my opinion. Midway through, dialogue gains the upper hand to my great relief, accelerating some general enlightenment.
Without trying to name the characters ― there are no heroes but opportunists and villains aplenty ― we have the diggers; the prostitute; the chemist; the captain; the gaoler; the enigmatic Maori; the opium smokers; the false friends; lost family; star-crossed lovers; and so on. Figuring out the flaws and the truth is just part of the reader's job. The questions involve deeds; contracts; marriage documents; shipping records; signatures; treacherous motives; and assumed identities, all appealing to family history detectives. Perhaps like me you will itch for a timeline on a spreadsheet!
Catton's encyclopaedic range of rich historical detail is a marvel: surely something of interest for everyone? An entire community, a town, has been created here. And there's even a delicious courtroom drama. Yet a number of contemporary terms are not explicit, another challenge to glean from context: celestials was a common reference to Chinese immigrants; I shall give you 'bounders for homework. Some of the scenes were reminiscent of an old black and white silent movie, or dear lord, maybe I was channelling Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush.
The key seems to be allowing yourself to absorb a rich new environment. You will be rewarded with a twisting tale like no other. Ultimately I recommend not missing an intricate, first-class novel.
Dare I suggest reading it a second time to get what you glossed over the first time? ~ evil laugh ~
The death at the centre of it all:
The wooden headstone that marked Crosbie Wells' grave had surrendered already to the coastal climate. Two weeks following the hermit's death, the wooden plaque was already swollen, the face already spotted with a rime of black mould. The indentation of the cooper's engraving had softened, and the thin accent of paint had faded from white to a murky yellow-grey, giving the impression, not altogether dispelled by the stated year of his death, that the man had been deceased for a very long time. The plot was yet unseeded by lichen or grass, and, despite the rain, had a barren look―not of earth recently turned, but of earth that has settled, and would not be turned again. (309)
The newly arrived widow:
In the parlour of the Wayfarer Hotel Gascoigne discovered her stretched out on the sofa with her slipper dangling free from her toe, one arm flung wide, and her head thrown back against a pillow; she was clasping a pocket-sized novel in her other hand, quite as if the book were an accessory to a faint. Her rouged cheeks and titillated aspect had been manufactured in the moments prior to Gascoigne's entrance, though the latter did not know it. They suggested to him, as was the woman's intention, that the narrative in which she had been engrossed was a very licentious one. (285-6)
Only one of the secrets:
If Shepard was the subject of idle rumour, it was of the conjectural sort, and nearly always concerned his private relations with his wife. Their marriage was to all appearances conducted in absolute silence, with a grim determination on his part, and a fearful inhibition on hers. The woman referred to her own self as Mrs. George, and this only in a whisper; she wore the bewildered, panicked aspect of a tortured animal, who sees a cage where there is none, and cowers at every sudden thing. Mrs. George rarely ventured beyond the gaol-house door except, on rare occasions of civic display, to trip red-faced down Revell-street in Governor Shepard's wake. They had been at Hokitika four months before anyone had discovered that she did in fact possess a Christian name―Margaret―though to speak it in her presence was an assault so dreadful that her only recourse was to flee. (132)
Moody paused a moment, thinking. "In a court of law," he said at last, "a witness takes his oath to speak the truth: his own truth, that is. He agrees to two parameters. His testimony must be the whole truth, and his testimony must be nothing but the truth. Only the second of these parameters is a true limit. The first, of course, is a matter of discretion. When we say the whole truth we mean, more precisely, all the facts and impressions that are pertinent to the matter at hand. All that is impertinent is not only immaterial; its is, in many cases, deliberately misleading. Gentleman," (although this collective address sat oddly, considering the mixed company in the room) "I contend that there are no whole truths, there are only pertinent truths―and pertinence, you must agree, is always a matter of perspective. I do not believe that any one of you has perjured himself in any way tonight. I trust that you have given me the truth, and nothing but the truth. But your perspectives are very many and you will forgive me if I do not take your tale for something whole." (282)