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.

 

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

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable