Thursday, February 06, 2014

Book review: The Luminaries

With Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning second novel, The Luminaries, the young New Zealand author has established herself as a more-than-accomplished writer. Ms. Catton was 27 years old at the time of the book's first printing, and given the astuteness of her perception, her skill as a plot developer, and her convincing (and at times, playful) narrative voice, that is an amazing fact. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Luminaries is set on the western coast of New Zealand in 1866. A gold rush is on at this, the far frontier of civilization. A disillusioned and disinherited young Scot named Walter Moody arrives at the small seaport of Hokitika where he hopes to earn his fortune panning for "color." Mr. Moody has had a harrowing voyage; he's the witness to a sight that has left him disquieted and in doubt. But he finds no respite when he seeks to relax in the smoking room of his hotel that evening. Rather, he interrupts an urgent conference between 12 men of diverse appearances, social classes, and races. A series of unexplained events have occurred in Hokitika. A hermit prospector has been murdered; a fallen woman has made an attempt on her own life; and an ambitious politician has arrived in town. Each man at the gathering has a piece of the puzzle that connects these events, and each has an interest in learning the truth about them, although for widely divergent reasons. All of this is made clear to Mr. Moody as the men turn to him for advice and perspective.

What unfolds from there is an intricately-plotted, haunting and beautiful tale of betrayals and deceptions, isolation, disillusionment, honor and dishonor, and love-in-spite-of-everything. It's an ambitious and daunting achievement.

There are many aspects of this multifaceted novel that bespeak Catton's extraordinary skill.

Like David Mitchell, Ms. Catton experiments with structure. The Luminaries mimics the progression of the zodiac in its composition. Each chapter of the novel is prefaced with a zodiacal chart. The chapters wane in length like the phases of the moon. The first chapter, "A Sphere Within a Sphere" is the longest (the moon is full). Subsequent chapters are sequentially shorter (the moon wanes) up to the last chapter, "The Old Moon in the Young Moon's Arms," which is but 2 pages in length.

The narrative voice the author employs is Victorian (think Charles Dickens or Emily Brontë) and it is spot on. Catton's prose evokes vivid imagery and reveals an astuteness toward human nature that is astonishing for such a young writer.

The characters are so well-drawn and vivid that, as my friend Kurt Kemmerer wrote of them: "The folks were standing in my living room as I read." 

Further, Catton exhibits a genius for plotting. The Luminaries is a complex novel. A score of major characters appear, each with his or her own motives, agenda, and goals. The reader is challenged to keep track of how the agendas of the characters interlock and relate to one another. The timeline jumps forward and backward. Foreshadowing, mirroring, and rich symbolism permeate.

And just to give you a sample of her beautiful prose, I include here an excerpt from the book. This is a pivotal scene and it comes late in the book. See what you think:
The Maori man carried a greenstone club upon his hip, thrust through his belt in the way that one might wear a crop or a pistol. The club had been carved into the shape of a paddle, and polished to a shine: the stone was a rippled olive green, shot through with bursts of yellow, as if tiny garlands of kowhai had been melted and then pressed into glass.
Carver, having delivered his message, was about to bid the other man goodbye when the stone caught the light, and seemed suddenly to brighten; curious, he pointed at it, saying, "What's that --a paddle?"

"Patu pounamu," said Tauwhare.

"Let me see," said Carver, holding out his hand. "Let me hold it."

Tauwhare took the club off his belt, but he did not hand it to the other man. He stood very still, staring at Carver, the club loose in his hand, and then suddenly, he leaped forward, and mimed jabbing Carver in the throat, and then in the chest; finally he raised the club up high above his shoulder, and brought it down, very slowly, stopping just before the weapon made contact with Carver's temple. "Harder than steel," he said.

"Is it?" said Carver. He had not flinched. "Harder than steel?"

Tawhare shrugged. He stepped back and thrust the club back into his belt; he appraised Carver for a long moment, his chin lifted, his jaw set, and then he smiled coldly, and turned away.
The book is a weighty 800+ pages in length. A considerable effort, but one that is well-worth making. I've undertaken to give it another go even as I write this. The plot is so complex and interwoven that this book demands a second reading.

Elizabeth Catton is on my must-read list. I can't wait to see her next effort.

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