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Book review: The Luminaries, By Eleanor Catton

This epic novel of light and shadow in New Zealand affirms the radiant talent of its author

"Luminary" is a word now much degraded in meaning. Its modern sense shades down from expert, doyen, pundit to mere celebrity, a "star" rather than a star. Eleanor Catton's novel to some degree restores the original sense, which refers to a bright celestial body and only then to a figure who provides that kind of cosmic illumination and influence on human affairs. Her long, complex narrative takes place under the aspect of wheeling constellations and planetary paths, each character's life, trajectory and inclinations carefully mapped in zodiacal diagrams, time-corrected to the year 1866, and the Southern Hemisphere skies and seasons of New Zealand.

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The Luminaries has the same non-linear structure as Catton's much-acclaimed debut The Rehearsal, another title that had to be looked at carefully and her first attempt to write in a style in which human action as performance and concealment was a major theme. At the start of The Luminaries, a young Scots-born lawyer called Walter Moody ("Related Influence: Reason") comes downstairs in a barely finished hotel in the rough gold rush settlement of Hokitika, to find the smoking room occupied by a mysterious group of 12 men, unusually mixed as to age, race and social standing. They seem surprised and disturbed to find that Moody a resident in what they had thought was a safe place for confidences. One man, the shipping agent Thomas Balfour, begins to question Moody. He seems particularly concerned that Moody should have arrived in Hokitika on the Port Chalmers barque Godspeed, under the enigmatic command of captain Francis Carver ("Force").

It transpires that the men have convened to investigate seemingly related events: the apparent attempted suicide by opium overdose of a local prostitute Anna Wetherell ("Related Influence: Outermost (formerly Innermost)") and the death by drink in a cabin of one Crosbie Wells ("Innermost (formerly Outermost)"), who has hidden away a cache of gold slugs. An unsuspected widow ("Desire") has appeared, who seems connected to Francis Carver.

All this Moody learns in discontinuous narratives, unfolding out of sequence, and without absolutely secure identification of any individual. There is, in addition, a commanding local politician, Alistair Lauderback, a greenstone hunter, Te Rau Tauwhare, Chinese goldsmiths and tradesmen, chemists and clerics: an asymmetrically male society which tries hard to cover its overwhelming emphasis on the getting of wealth and power.

Catton writes in deliberately archaic style, orotund and oblique. But her characters are neither "flat" representations of humours and temperaments (reason, force, desire) nor "rounded" psychological wholes. They seem to exist as motivic material in a vast quasi-symphonic structure that uses variation, reiteration, dissonance of detail, consonance of theme to create a new kind of fictional cadence: satisfying in the way some of Thomas Pynchon's later "historical" fiction is, but with a skim of realism that takes away some of the oddity.

Only occasionally does Catton appear to step forward with some choric comment about the nature of fiction or the kind of enterprise on which she is embarked. In one flashback Balfour presses the greenstone hunter on what Hokitika means: "At last Tauwhare lifted his finger and described a circle in the air… 'Understand it like this', he said, regretting that he had to speak the words in English and approximate the noun. 'Around. And then back again, beginning'." This is all the more powerful for coming via the book's "other" language and from one of its minority protagonists.

One always receives a strong sense of the shiftingness of names and naming. Women change their names, but at male behest. Places are named for convenience or to indicate possession. A morning star and an evening star may be the same, or different. The heavens rotate. Constellations are viewed upside down (from a European point of view). Mysterious lights come and go.

Civilisation is almost defined as a bringing of light, to deliberately dim interiors, opium dens, lonely cabins. Gold glows with a celestial fire, as if to say: as above, so below. And it goes further even than this. A key concept in the early chapters is the "twinkle", not of a star but in the double sense of the sliver of mirror used by card-sharps and cheatss,and of a planted spy or agent provocateur. Few novels have been so carefully and cinematically lit, or so concerned with "illumination" in its literal rather than dramatic sense.

Catton wears her research lightly. Nothing jars. All seems plausible, and yet the overall impression is of artifice and theatricality, a human proscenium in which the cold light of day and a face raised to the rising sun is contrasted with the opium-eater's candle and fizzy, lime-lit celebrity. In a society like this reputation counts as much as "identity", and is as easily made and remade.

The Luminaries is already on the Man Booker long-list. Catton was born in Canada to a New Zealand father, grew up in Yorkshire, and returned "home" to study creative writing in Canterbury and Wellington, where she wrote The Rehearsal. Not yet 30, her mastery of fictional form is already assured. Expect to see The Luminaries attracting a good deal more light yet.