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Book of the week : The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton

To say that The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton’s breakthrough second novel, is daringly ambitious in its reach and scope doesn’t really do it justice. In aspiration and accomplishment, the book goes far, far beyond The Rehearsal (2008), Ms. Catton’s debut novel about a student-teacher romance in a high school. Last month The Luminaries won the New Zealander (who was actually born in Canada!) the Man Booker Prize, and justly so, making her, at 28, the youngest ever winner of the award

Catton’s tale is one of of intrigue, double-dealing and frontier justice in mid-19th-century New Zealand, and is told with breathtaking observational precision and narrative complexity. It’s as if a Victorian novelist -steeped in Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, with their sense of character, plot, atmosphere and texture - had the benefit of the modernist masters, where the manner of recounting the story is as important as the story itself

Catton sets The Luminaries in Hokitika, New Zealand, during the gold rush in 1865 and 1866. It’s a brilliant choice, giving her the scope to introduce the extensive players in a convoluted drama: a lawyer newly arrived to seek his fortune; a Chinese opium-dealer who has vowed to kill the scheming ship’s captain who wronged him; a Maori greenstone hunter; a prostitute who holds the town’s heart; the boy who loves her but has disappeared; an ambitious politician; the dead (murdered?) hermit; the hermit’s conniving wife; a Chinese miner/goldsmith; a banker who wrestles with his conscience; a shipping agent who plays detective; the town pimp; the newspaperman; and the magistrate and his clerk, among others. Just those brief descriptions provide an immediate sense of how the stock characters may drive the plot - and they do!

The story begins with Walter Moody, the Scottish lawyer, arriving in Hokitika and stumbling upon a private meeting of 12 of the aforementioned men. They’ve gathered to try to solve the puzzle of the death of the hermit, Crosbie Wells; the disappearance of Emery Staines, the boy who loves the prostitute; and the mysterious opium overdose of said prostitute, Anna Wetherell, found unconscious in the middle of the road the same night that Staines disappears. As Moody listens to the piece of the truth that each of the 12 men provides by telling their story of events related to that fateful night, the lawyer begins to form his own opinion of the character of each man and his relationship to the others - and to the truth

Part of Catton’s achievement in The Luminaries is to convey something of New Zealand’s own mystery and essence in the way that, say, W.B. Yeats did for his native Ireland. Auden wrote in his elegy to Yeats, “Ireland has her weather and her madness still.” There are elements of both in Ms. Catton’s country-portrait

“In Hokitika,” she writes of the storm-tossed town on the South Island’s coast, “it had been raining for two weeks without reprieve. Moody’s first glimpse of the township was of a shifting smear that advanced and retreated as the mist blew back and forth. There was only a narrow corridor of flat land between the coastline and the sudden alps, battered by the endless surf that turned to smoke on the sand; it seemed still flatter and more contained by virtue of the cloud that sheared the mountains low on their flanks and formed a gray ceiling over the huddled roofs of the town.” She is no less vividly descriptive of the densely starred skies, the exotic birds flying overhead, the “wide, shingled beaches littered with the bones of mighty trees, where the surf was a ceaseless battery, and the wind a ceaseless roar”

As for madness, The Luminaries offers instances of avarice, fear and all manner of desperation. Hokitika, brings to mind the iconography of the Wild West - the brothel, the saloon, the general store - and the varied fortunes of the mining camp, with its wild-eyed prospectors, the lucky few who hit it rich, the unlucky many who do not, each preying on the other for advantage. Amid the buying and selling and cheating, nothing is settled or entirely lawful. This volcanic instability is at the core of the novel’s world

The Luminaries contains elements of a conventional thriller, and it is certainly peppered with surprises. But Catton also upends convention. She combines the stylistic elements of a 19th century novel, complete with synopses that head each chapter, astrological charts, and Zodiac signs assigned to each character. Further, the structure of the novel revolves around the archetypal pattern of the Sun and its relationship to the Moon and the planets. This unique structure and its symbolism, along with the intricacy of Catton’s plot, her shifting use of narrative perspective and her effortless mastery of 19th century writing style, make her a worthy winner of the Man Booker

The astrological theme is again reminiscent of Yeats, with his own charts and astrological mysticism. Yet Yeats was in earnest, while Ms. Catton appears to use the star-mapped sky as an occasional, even ironical, form of commentary, as well as an ornament to her already elaborate plot and mix of characters. In this marvelously inventive novel, nothing is quite what it first appears to be, but everything is illuminated

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