The Luminaries (Forget your feet)

As already noted, I really enjoyed the discourse flowing around the greatest literary occasion to hit NZ in a long time: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries winning the 2013 Man Booker Prize. It’s also been great reading more thoughts from Catton via interviews and such, they’re all over the internet. And it’s good she’s not shy with her opinions.

And unsurprisingly, prevailing opinion favours The Luminaries. But it is not unanimous, and I know that some are not attempting or finishing the novel, and there is a reason for that. Upon finishing The Luminaries, I felt fulfilled, satisfied and teased out as if after an actual physical workout, but I’d be lying if I said I loved it right from the start. While I don’t do reviews, as such, I will sound off on books that I like, and I figure a little light analysis might help people know how or whether to try The Luminaries out.

Upon winning the Booker, VUP’s Fergus Barrowman himself said the book had a slow start. So I think the first thing to point out is that if you can get a quarter through the book, you might as well keep reading, it will only get easier, better, and more enjoyable. This is not to say the first chapters aren’t skilfully wrought. The Luminaries carries two stories. The one that kicks the novel off is an intricate tale of a dead man’s gold and what 12 men know about it, which of course includes all the lies, misunderstandings and machinations with each person’s “whole truth” making nothing so true, but nothing less whole than a wheeling constellation of relations.

This story, the messy intrigue of “the whole truth”, is well-served by the astrological origins of the text’s structure. Where the novel shines, however, is towards the end. Catton herself has stated her story is, at the heart of it, a love story, and I would agree. But this heart it is only felt in the final, revelatory third once Staines is found and the text tapers to “nothing but the truth”, without the embellishments surrounding the dominant gold/mystery story. The Irishmen Paddy Ryan appears for one moment just to mark this transition where the lovers’ tale emerges from the body of the other. “Give us a tale and spin it out, so we forget about our feet, and we don’t notice that we’re walking,” he says. In The Luminaries there is a lot of palaver from tenuously connected characters, many minutiae of shipping and insurance, the tiny yet significant details of typesetting a paper, and a general mix of coincidences and contrivances that bring the constellation of events together. This is not a criticism in itself, but as these relations are so slender and transient, a lot hinges on whether you are engaged by the presence of the Victorian-style narrator and her insights and asides as to whether you “forget your feet”. I do like a little narration; a good narration not only reminds us we are engaged with a text but invites us to make our own external connections between it and our world. While others, apparently, have been appropriately bewitched by The Luminaries’ narrator, she remained aloof for me.

But while the early content might be a barrier to some persevering with the novel, Catton’s writing is still a huge ameliorating factor. Her skill with sentences is what makes this conflation of circumstances readable, much less converge with masterful sense. The Luminaries is a novel that shouldn’t work, doesn’t quite work, yet does its work perfectly. Together the two stories comprise “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, suitably intertwined by the Carvers’ ambitions, and in this the text seems to execute the author’s intent. I confess a wish for the lovers’ and their antagonists to have spent more time centre-stage in a story told with the élan of The Luminaries’ final third. But that would have been an entirely different novel.

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