“Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel…”
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
When Walter Moody, newly arrived in the New Zealand gold-rush town of Hokitika, enters the bar of the Crown Hotel, he doesn’t know at first that he is disturbing a meeting. Twelve of the town’s citizens, some prominent personages, some less so, have gathered to share all they know about a strange incident that has happened in the town, involving the death of one man, the disappearance of another and the mysterious appearance of some unaccounted-for gold. The twelve men fear that when these circumstances are investigated, each may be dragged in to the matter and so they have decided to try to get to the truth of the matter themselves. The book begins as they decide to take Moody into their confidence and tell him of all the events that have led them to be here on this night…
Winner of the 2013 Booker Prize, The Luminaries is a huge brick of a book, well over 800 pages, and with a cast of twenty major characters. So when I say that it didn’t just hold my attention throughout but actually kept me fully absorbed through almost two full weeks of reading, this is high praise indeed. And deserved praise, I think – Catton has achieved something quite remarkable in this book. The crime element has been much talked about, particularly since aficionados are so pleased to see a crime novel achieve such high recognition. But although the book is built round the investigation, the crime aspect is somewhat secondary – Catton’s real achievement is to create an utterly believable and incredibly detailed picture of the town, its citizens and the obsession with gold. And yet, despite the huge amount of descriptive writing, she keeps the action ticking along at enough of a pace – just – to stop the reader from feeling like she’s wallowing in a morass of detail.
Thomas Balfour’s heart was beating very fast. He was unused to the awful compression that comes after a lie, when it dawns upon the liar that the lie he has uttered is one to which he is now bound; that he must now keep lying, and compound smaller lies upon the first, and be shuttered in lonely contemplation of his own mistake. Balfour would wear his falsehood as a fetter, until the shipping crate was found.
The whole first half of the book is taken up with the twelve men telling their tale to Moody, and the second half follows the developments after that evening. There is a narratorial voice that takes over the telling in the third-person most of the time, which prevents this from becoming a stream of people talking. I’m reluctant to say an omniscient narrator, because I normally find that device awkward and annoying – this narrator is more of an interpreter and one doesn’t get that irritating feeling that the narrator knows more than is being told at any given point. The initial chapters are hugely lengthy and each gives the story as known by one or two of the twelve men in the room, so that the reader, along with the men themselves, is in the position of trying to match up all these stories and see how they fit together. Catton takes the time to tell us in tremendous detail about each man’s character, history, involvement with the others characters both present and absent; and as she does this, she gradually builds up a complete and rather mesmerising picture of this frontier town and how it works. The men we meet are from all strata of society – the banker, the newspaperman, the shipping-line operator, the prospectors, the Maori, the Chinamen. And we learn of what life is like in a place where women have not yet arrived in any numbers and where the few prostitutes are perhaps more highly valued for this rarity. There are very few female characters in the book for that reason, but they play a vital role both in the story and in giving a credible picture of the place of women in this almost entirely male society.
Reams have been written by hundreds of reviewers on the games Catton plays with the structure of the book. The highest compliment I can pay her is to say that these games, normally a particular hate of mine, didn’t detract in any way from my enjoyment of the book. Apparently each section is exactly half of the length of the section before, meaning that as the book progresses the chapters shorten and the action seems to speed up – by the end the chapter headings are nearly as long as the chapters. There is also a running (and rather pointless) thread about astrology throughout the structure, but were it not for the section headings and character lists I would probably have remained blissfully ignorant of that and would have lost nothing as a result. Some people have compared this to Dickens – it appears that any book longer than 600 pages is automatically considered Dickensian these days. As with The Goldfinch, I think that comparison lacks validity – although Catton does look at every aspect of society from high to low, the tone of the book remains fairly static without the layers of high farce and tragedy that Dickens normally introduces, and even the minor characters show none of the caricaturing of a Sairey Gamp or a Mr Micawber. That’s not to criticise – merely to say that Catton is not ‘doing a Dickens’; but the greater realism of this book works in its own context.
Shepard paused, forming his business in his mind. The pale light of the day, falling slantwise across Nilssen’s desk, froze the eddies of pipe-smoke that hung about his head – fixing each coiling thread upon the air, as mineral quartz preserves a twisting vein of gold, and proffers it. Nilssen waited. He was thinking: If I am convicted, then this man will be my gaoler.
The major female character is the prostitute, Anna Wetherell, and she is at the centre of the story. The scarcity of women means that she is an object of desire for many of the men in more than just a sexual sense, and though she is used and, to a degree, abused by some of the men, she is also respected and even loved by others. A fascinating character, we don’t get to see from her point of view until near the end, so that her personality is rather vague and indistinct for much of the novel; and slowly learning about her is as much part of the story as unravelling the crime at the heart of the book. Anna is an opium-eater and the dream-like feel of much of her part is echoed in an overall mildly dream-like quality to the story, which combined with the New Zealand setting to put me in mind of the Maori ‘Dreamtime’ traditions. Just occasionally the whole thing tips over into mild mysticism but the drugged feel of Anna’s story prevents this from causing too sharp an intake of breath from even this hardened realist.
The book is not perfect and it would be easy to pick flaws. It’s arguable whether the prostitutes of the town would have been treated as respectfully as they are here. The structure means that the early chapters are too long while the later ones are too short. The crime story is perhaps not strong enough to carry such a weight of words. But these criticisms are not ones that I was making as I read – the quality of the writing and storytelling was such that I found myself fully involved and willing to suspend my disbelief as and when required. And although it took me many chapters before I had got all the characters straight in my mind, I found that Catton was skilled enough to give me much needed reminders of who was who and how they fitted in at any point where it was all in danger of becoming too overwhelming. I swithered over 4 ½ or 5 stars, but given that I think the town of Hokitika and its gold-rush residents will stay with me for a long time, I’m going with 5 and highly recommending the book.
So…do I think it deserved to win the Booker? Tune in on Friday…