Eleanor Catton’s prize-winning ‘The Luminaries’ is a fun house of a novel

THE LUMINARIES. Eleanor Catton. Little, Brown. 834 pages. $27.
THE LUMINARIES. Eleanor Catton. Little, Brown. 834 pages. $27.

When 28-year-old Eleanor Catton became the youngest person to win Britain’s Man Booker Prize, she acknowledged that The Luminaries was a “publisher’s nightmare.” At more than 800 pages, it’s a reviewer’s nightmare, too. I say this not because I didn’t like it; trust me, I did. You will, also. But it is astoundingly complicated and almost defies explanation. Moreover, I can’t recall the last time I read a novel that left me so baffled. In the end, however, I was awed — as were the Booker judges, who chose The Luminaries over Jim Crace’s Harvest, the bookies’ favorite for the $80,000 prize.

Still, I needed to create my own Cliffs Notes to keep straight the cast of 19 breathing characters, the corpse (whose name reminds one of the living occasionally commandeers), the location of five dresses filled with gold, the source of yet more gold discovered in a dead hermit’s cottage, why a lovely young prostitute has almost overdosed on opium, the different owners of a boat named the Godspeed and the motivations of the dozen “luminaries” who have gathered together in the smoking room of a second-rate New Zealand hotel when the novel opens to discuss a few of these curiosities.

Actually, there’s more. A lot more: an evil ship’s captain with a C-shaped scar, a brothel madam who conducts a seance, a blackmailed politician and a riveting courtroom scene. And let’s not forget the phantom aboard the Godspeed, “the dead man rising, his bloody throat, his cry,” that greets Walter Moody on his way to New Zealand, a mystery that one might presume is the heart of the novel but is actually all but forgotten for the vast majority of this tome. And then there’s the astrology. And the 12 parts of the novel that wane like the moon: Each part is roughly half the length of the section that preceded it. Part 1 is 358 pages long. Part 12? Two.

Catton’s tale is set largely in the fast-growing gold-rush town of Hokitika in 1865 and 1866, a world where “the men were bronzed and weathered in the manner of all frontiersmen, their lips chapped white, their carriage expressive of privation and loss. … The glow of youth was quite washed from them.” Throughout the novel, Catton shifts perspective among the dozen luminaries as well as her other characters. She has created an erudite, omniscient 19th century sort of narrator fond of such pronouncements as this:

“The interruptions were too tiresome, and Balfour’s approach too digressive, to deserve a full and faithful record in the men’s own words. We shall here excise their imperfections, and impose a regimental order upon the impatient chronicle of the shipping agent’s roving mind; we shall apply our own mortar to the cracks and chinks of earthly recollection, and resurrect as new the edifice that, in solitary memory, exists only as a ruin. We begin, as Balfour himself began, with an encounter that had taken place in Hokitika that very morning.”

Catton provides descriptions of her characters that are meticulous and precise. Here is politician Alistair Lauderback: “His beard … protruded almost horizontally from his jaw, giving his face a regal aspect; beneath his brow, his dark eyes glittered. He was very tall, and his body tapered, which made him seem even taller still. … His hearing was slightly defective, and for this reason he tended to bow his head, and stoop slightly, when he was listening — creating the impression, so useful in politics, that his attentions were always gravely and providentially bestowed.”

As Byzantine as the plot is, at one point in this novel I found myself thinking of All the President’s Men. I recalled that pivotal line of the Watergate investigation, now a classic catchphrase: “Follow the money.” Everyone in The Luminaries is hoping to get rich quick, in a dog-eat-dog world where almost no one can be trusted and almost no one is telling the truth. At least not the whole truth. But the key to following the story is to try to follow the money.

The result is a finely wrought fun house of a novel. Enjoy the ride.

Chris Bohjalian reviewed this book for the Washington Post.

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