Reading the Man Booker Prize 2013: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

It’s done, I’ve read them all! Not only do I feel a bit more up to date with what’s going on in the world of literature, I also really enjoyed reading this year’s shortlisted novels. All of them were good. Some of them were great. And The Luminaries was simply amazing.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Having said that, I feel that this is a very personal assessment. Eleanor Catton’s novel simply pressed all the right buttons for me: a story that’s set in the past, with a multitude of characters and a very long-winded narration is exactly my thing, but I know that it’s not everyone’s thing. There will be people who are unlikely to ever read it, or will eventually be put off by its length, its setting, or its language. I understand the juror’s need to go over the novel again before declaring it a winner. Part of what convinced them, in the end, was the cleverly constructed framing of the story: It’s mirrored by the stellar and planetary positions that occurred over New Zealand in 1865 and 1866. Each of the characters is assigned a star sign and position in the story, and, like the phases of the moon, the chapter lengths wane. But the novel doesn’t simply rely on such structural sophistication. Its storytelling is masterful, and each of the characters is characterised in a way that makes them relatable and understandable. Catton gets most of this characterisation out of the way over the course of the very long first chapter, which sums up two weeks of events from the perspectives of 13 different men. Yes, it’s long-winded, and yes, it could have been narrated in a chronological order. But what Catton aims to do is show how stories work: There aren’t merely different perspectives to one story, things that happen simultaneously may also cause entirely different outcomes; time itself moves at different paces:

There was this large world of rolling time and shifting spaces, and that small, stilled world of horror and unease; they fit inside each other, a sphere within a sphere.

This concept of “sphere within a sphere” is highlighted a few times while the story unfolds, but it’s to Catton’s credit that otherwise very little explanation is offered for the forces that are at work. The novel tells a captivating story first, and it’s up to the reader to ponder the stellar positions, implications and inevitabilities.

On the 27th of January, 1866, Walter Moody lands in Hokitika, New Zealand, with a plan to dig for gold. Upset by a stormy, traumatic crossing, he seeks shelter in the first hotel he comes across, only to stumble upon a secret meeting by twelve local men. The set-up is curious: among the men are two Chinese workers and a Maori tribesmen. Over the course of the evening, each of the men tells their part in a story that has been puzzling the town over the last two weeks. Along with the unfamiliar setting, there is a lot to take in in those first 360 pages: A rich young man has disappeared, a whore has been found passed out from an opium overdose, and a hermit has been discovered dead by a politician on his way to town. Add to this the characterisations of the men relating their stories, and the pure joy with which the author spins her yarn, and it becomes a book that even in this first part seems too thin to contain everything. At 832 pages, this may sound odd, but I for one could have just gone on and on forever. It’s a wonderful story, full of clever observation, and a joy to read.

A world where the only places for females are their (often abusive) husbands’ homes or whoring houses, and racial discrimination is a given, one has to draw a fine line between simply relating facts and customs and taking sides. The point of The Luminaries is not, outwardly, to denounce those facts. All of the 13 narrators in the first part of the book are men; their views on women are very likely to echo most other men’s views at the time. Catton doesn’t criticise them, but she uses her narrative powers in characterising those men to show them as people with a past, allowing for faults while pointing out their motivations and moral guidelines. All those men have fears and longings, just as the female characters show strength, cleverness and resilience. There is no point to be made here other than the fact that this world, a sphere within a sphere, is just as full of different people as any other one.

The way the chapters become ever shorter towards the end is surprising and takes a little getting used to, but it all works out just fine. The latter parts of the book delve into the backstories of those involved, and again, there is room for so much more. There really are spheres within spheres, and I didn’t want those stories to stop. I felt bereaved after I  put the book down (after successfully ignoring my family for a week). For me, this is a sure sign that I’ve just read an amazing book.


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Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

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