Updated: Nov 12, 2020
A review of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, winner of the Man Booker Prize 2013
The Luminaries first came to my attention via the brilliant BrittlePaper literary treasure chest. A departure from African literature, but well worth the journey. And so, to New Zealand, and to Victorian times...
At 832 pages, The Luminaries is some read. A massive novel, not just in volume but also in the extensive and relentless challenge it imposes on the reader. This is the story of gold diggers at the turn of the 20th century in New Zealand’s South Island. It covers the events, the claims, the relationships, the ordeals, the arguments, the hopes, the despair, the rewards, the crimes, the punishments and so much more. All presented and then represented from another perspective, then another, with an inexhaustible momentum that calls the reader to attention again and again.
We are first introduced to Walter Moody, who is reluctantly obliged to reveal something of his own story and recent experiences to a rather menacing gathering of misfits and professional ne’er-do-wells. Subsequently, Moody is privy to a series of similar tales from his inquisitors. But really it’s the same story, or at least different bits of the same story, revealed equally begrudgingly by all present to protect their various conflicting and nefarious interests.
As the story develops we hear from the banker, the priest, the gaoler, the opium den manager, the Maori scout, the whore, the widow, the ship-owner, the solicitor, the newspaper editor, the prospective Member of Parliament and so many others. They are all attempting to make sense of a series of mysterious events and to take advantage of the opportunities that arise for self-gain. Some are clearly trying to muddy the waters. Few if any are genuinely disinterested. One of the versions must be the truth, surely. But with each version we learn a little more and we rely on the collective.
We read of opium addiction resulting in decadence and squalor, gold sewn into the seams of dresses, treasure chests holding more than just worldly goods, gunfire resulting in mixed outcomes for the targets, personal secrets that threaten professional and political success, and a queue of men longing for sex and love all from the same woman. Others are looking instead, or as well, for answers / justice / revenge / power / some other satisfaction, and frequently some combination of these rewards. Everyone has a say. Everyone has a claim to stake. And they are all getting in each other’s way and making things difficult.
As for the setting, this really centres around the cycle of conversations. For hundreds of pages we hear little about the streets, the sea, the sites where the digging takes place. Much of the action happens indoors, in offices, bars and hotel rooms. The lack of scenes set in the open air and with a natural backdrop is stifling, but powerful and deliberate. This all serves to intensify the secrets and the tension.
There are many themes in the story. The following stand out:
Knowledge of others
What people know or think they know about other people and their businesses and lives. And what they are trying to find out. This story is a mystery where almost everyone is both an investigator and a suspect.
Who is who, really ? Who is related to whom ? Do some of the ‘off-stage’ characters actually exist, or are they make-believe to help string along the yarns of those with something to hide ? The author plays a mischievous game, creating intrigue with a complex cast of characters who are rarely straightforward.
Who has it ? Who wants it ? To whom does it really belong ? Does it really exist ? Why is one specific item talked about and relied upon by almost everyone ? How does it sustain the community and indeed the story ?
Mis-readings of people’s statements. Mis-interpretation of events. Deception and mis-direction. Deliberate or otherwise. The story depends on nobody being able to make sense of the people and the world around them.
A ghostly, ghoulish spectre on board Godspeed, the cargo ship. It scares the wits out of Walter Moody. The séance, hosted by Lydia Wells with the assistance of Anna Wetherall and the Chinamen. All countered, or perhaps enhanced by a sense of natural mysticism in the rocks and the earth.
Male or Female Dominance ?
We are introduced to so many male characters and so few females. A reflection of the age, no doubt. The women in the story struggle for equality, but have crucial roles, and reduce quite a few of the men to putty. So many of the businessmen are enthralled by a woman who used to be their favourite form of relief.
Physical, in the form of a new prison house being built by the gaoler George Shephard, partially funded from money that seems to be have been spent several times over already. But more extensively mental, in that many of the characters are unable to escape their own inner world of torment, grounded in suspicion, distrust, accusations and ruthless behaviour towards each other. Addicted to gold, opium and whoring. Powerless to gain release from the demands of their financial, psychological and physical dependencies. All the characters seem imprisoned on the island and in their own small minds, collectively forming their own small hell.
Justice, or lack of
Of all the genuine villains, the story allows two of the lesser culprits to come to trial. Calling them culprits is really a bit harsh. We hear an impetuous rascal and a betrayed ingénue tried for really rather minor crimes in contrast to the darker, meaner and sleazier offences committed by others. We might complain that we are left with a few too many loose ends, elsewhere, with several characters escaping justice, though most of the community would have something to answer for.
Overall, this is a story of discovery. The answers come slowly at first, but by the end we are subjected to a vast torrent of revelations. We learn about the lives of a fascinating collection of men and women, but mostly men. Men thinking they know something, hoping they can prove it, but usually discovering that they were completely wrong all along. Or at the very least that there were several other sides to the story. Also that women are not to be oppressed or underestimated.
Sometimes the truth is astonishing and has extraordinary effects on professional and private lives. Other times, news that people need to hear is long delayed or never received at all. Walter Moody eventually receives news that is quite staggering on a personal level.
The end of the story is almost an anti-climax. There is no Poirot-style denouement. The mysteries have been chewed over and unravelled as the story has progressed. There is perhaps some surprise with the story ending on a cautiously optimistic note. Following the despair, the agony, the hopelessness, the violence, the greed and the selfishness, we end with at least a glimmer of hope. A pair of star-crossed lovers who haven’t quite secured their lives together yet, but have something of a future to look forward to. The rest are left to carry on with their digging and their transactions.
© Eddie Hewitt, 2015
"The Man Booker Prize promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year"