Granta, £18.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

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.

Get money off this title at the Independent book shop

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy