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.

 

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
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.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot