Granta Books, 2013
I came across The Luminaries entirely on accident. The first time I noticed it was on a bookshelf in a hostel in Copenhagen. I mentally noted it as something I thought I’d enjoy and then completely forgot about it. Over a year later, I recognized it at a bookstore in Philly and bought it immediately. I did not come to regret it.
“Moody was silent for a time, wondering how to begin. “I am trying to decide between the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” he said presently. “I am afraid my history is such that I can’t manage both at once.”
“Hi – no need for the truth at all,” said Paddy Ryan. “Who said anything about the truth? You’re a free man in this country, Walter Moody. You tell me any old rubbish you like, and if you string it out until we reach the junction at Kumara, then I shall count it as a very fine tale.”
Defining what it means for something to be true is a central theme in The Luminaries, and I enjoyed this moment at the very end of the novel because Paddy Ryan’s response to Walter Moody feels like Catton explaining herself. The novel contains so many stories from so many characters that you’re often left wondering who was telling the “whole” truth and who wasn’t.
As for Eleanor Catton’s writing, it’s magnificent. The detail and beauty of her descriptions of every little thing from each of the numerous characters appearances, personalities, and fashions to descriptions of the town, the landscape, the streets, and everyday objects is extraordinary. I’m not a reader who typically enjoys overly descriptive writing, but Catton fits it so seamlessly into the novel that I didn’t feel that it bogged down the story or slowed the narrative. The vast descriptions made the story more real. The structure of the novel allows for the plot to unfold at an appropriate pace, something I’ve mentioned before I am very picky about. It is a very long, very dense read. It starts off a little slow at the beginning because of the sheer number of characters that are introduced, but by the time I was a third of the way through, I couldn’t put it down.
A huge element of the novel that I’m sure I mostly missed out on was the influence of the zodiac. I know very little about the zodiac, and there is a lot of symbolism in the The Luminaries based around it. There is numeric symbolism in the number of characters, and each character is affiliated with a different sign of the zodiac. At the start of each chapter, Catton states what house the sun is in. I imagine that this element of the novel would be really fun and exciting for a reader that is interested in astrology and the zodiac, and they would definitely pick up on more instances of it than I did.
The cast is made up mostly of men, as the story takes place during the gold rush in New Zealand, but the few female characters are strong ones. Not all strong women, but strong characters in that they exist because they exist in the story and not ever just as a counterpoint or plot-moving device for the men. The mystery at the heart of The Luminaries kept me on my toes and I found myself truly invested in uncovering the pieces of the puzzle. It is a mystery novel folded up inside a historical fiction with just a hint of the supernatural and is a real joy to read.