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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
  • @simmyrichman

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?

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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.