Granta £18.99

Review: The Luminaries, By Eleanor Catton

However you read this rangy, enormous, brilliant novel, make sure you do before its scope is crushed by a cinema or television adaptation

How do you begin to review a novel as multi-layered and complex as The Luminaries? Do you start by pointing out that its author, whose second book this is, is still only 27 years old? Or do you just state the fact that although The Luminaries has only recently been made available to the reading public, it was there on the longlist when the Booker contenders were announced in July?

Get money off this title at the Independent book shop

Perhaps, too, it is your duty to alert readers to the detail that The Luminaries contains more pages between its covers than there are words in this review. At a loss for how best to contain your excitement, you seek sanctuary in the safety of plot and attempt to summarise a story as dense as a Dickens and as wily as a Wilkie.

It is 27 January 1866, and Walter Moody has just stepped off the barque Godspeed which has carried him – head full of dreams of gold-rush glory – from Port Chalmers to Hokitika on the west coast of New Zealand.

Once there, Moody checks in to the Crown Hotel, where, unbeknown to him, a group of 12 men has gathered in the drawing-room below. Into this secret meeting walks Moody, and the story unfolds from this point, as – once Moody has gained their trust – various men step forward to discuss their part in the events of some two weeks earlier.

A hermit has been discovered dead in his cabin. On the same night, one of the town's richest men disappears and a local whore is found lying in the road in a "posture of such abject insentience that a distinction between gross intoxication and wilful harm could not be made". In the days that follow these dramatic events, each of the men in the Crown Hotel drawing-room will be drawn in to their aftermath. Each will be enmeshed and implicated.

This, then, is The Luminaries' opening scene, albeit one which stretches to a little under half the length of the novel as a whole.

It is telling that Catton uses the device of multiple narrators, with a tendency to interrupt each other, to tell this part of her tale. Because while Part One is about a great many things – gold, power, politics, identity, passion, betrayal, murder, sex, drugs and so on – what Catton is really trying to convey here is the sheer joy (both hers and her characters') to be had in the telling of a good story.

Further, as Moody notes early on, no single narrator can ever be trusted to relate anything other than their own version of events. So just as we start to piece together this glorious puzzle, Catton throws us out into the world of Hokitika three weeks after that secret meeting, as the men variously attempt to play detective and cover their own tracks.

What is incredible about Catton's control over her material is that though each man in that virtuoso opening act is clearly defined enough to prevent undue riffling back through the pages, these dozen characters are actually mere bit-part players in the real story of what became of the reclusive Crosbie Wells, where the gold-mine owner Emery Staines has disappeared to, and what the whore Anna Wetherall has to do with the small fortune found in the hermit's cabin.

Add to all this intrigue a devious device based on the astrological signs – Catton has stated that she is interested in these only for what they might say about character, rather than any belief they can be used to predict the future – and it all amounts to the type of novel that you will devour only to discover that you can't find anything of equal scope and excitement to read once you have finished.

It is, in this way, a very old-fashioned book; one that rightfully respects the joy it imparts with each of its many small revelations. And it is this sheer rip-roaring readability, perhaps, that could work against it when the Booker Prize comes to be handed out.

Criticisms? Well, the pace does trail off towards the end and the device Catton uses to wind her story down is a love-it-or-loathe-it modernist touch that is one of the few things to separate her work from that of the original Sensation writers. But to point such things out is churlish – especially so when a young writer has clearly immersed herself in the works she set out to emulate and has, in so doing, equalled or surpassed much of her source material.

Yes it's big. Yes it's clever. But do yourself a favour and read The Luminaries before someone attempts to confine its pleasures to the screen, big or small. It may not be the thing to say these days, but this is a story written to be absorbed from the page. And with all manner of modern devices at your fingertips to do so, you can even spare yourself the burden of lugging the weight of its world around on your shoulders.

 

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions