Book review: The Luminaries

By Paula Green

Eleanor Catton has absorbed the traditional power of telling stories. Photo / Robert Catto
Eleanor Catton has absorbed the traditional power of telling stories. Photo / Robert Catto

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
(Victoria University Press hardback $45/paperback $35, out next week)

Every now and then you get to read a novel that elevates you far beyond the bric-a-brac of everyday routine, takes you apart, reassembles you, and leaves you feeling as though you have been on holiday with a genius.

Eleanor Catton's astonishing new novel, The Luminaries, does just that. It was no surprise to me, really, because her debut novel, The Rehearsal, was daring, fresh, beautifully crafted and award-winning. It has been translated into 12 languages.

Don't let the hefty size put you off (more than 800 pages) because you enter the world of a novelist who, in her late 20s, writes with such wisdom, compassion, elegance and craft you don't want to depart that world in a hurry.

Catton has used an astrological structure to give form to her narrative.

Each star corresponds to a particular character and each astrological house to a particular location.

She has included a useful character chart at the beginning, including a list of related influences (reason, desire, force, command, restriction). As expected, the novel is divided into 12 parts.

This novel - a tangled web of involvement in a tangled web of events - is as much about storytelling as it is about anything else. Catton has absorbed the traditional power of telling stories; from the deferral of death in A Thousand And One Nights to Boccaccio's Decameron to Italo Calvino's folk tales.

It is set in Hokitika in 1866, when Walter Moody arrives to make his fortune in the goldfields. He finds himself in his hotel bar eavesdropping on 12 local men who have met in secret to discuss unsolved crimes (a murder, a missing person, stolen goods, a beaten woman). Soon, he too is embedded in the story.

This is a novel of relations and revelations - each character is like a set of Russian dolls that keep exposing another layer, another personal secret, another piece to the wider puzzle. And like these complex characters, the twisting narrative is always more than the curiosity of its individual parts.

Catton has made the Hokitika of another age come alive with terrific detail deftly woven into the narrative fabric. Food, customs, clothing, words, dialogue and buildings invoke a different time yet the toil of the researcher is like invisible stitching. It just is. Catton gets the representation of history just right - no squirming with crude stereotypes or jarring dialogue.

Like all great works of storytelling, the author is never far away. Moody on coincidence: A coincidence is "a stilled moment in a sequence that had yet to be explained". Moody on trying to fathom what he has heard: "What a convoluted picture, what a convoluted picture it was - and how difficult to see, in its entirety." On the trust-
worthiness of the storyteller: "One should never take another man's truth for one's own."

On the men of the Crown Hotel who "in the bright thread of time and motion, have, like all men, no immunity to influence".

I don't want to spoil the effect of the unfolding narrative's twists and turns by exposing them, but when I reached the end I felt extremely satisfied. Catton is a remarkable writer and this is a remarkable book that has earned its place in essential New Zealand reading.

- NZ Herald

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