Freya Hill


Trompe-l’œil: On reading Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

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Eleanor Catton's skill is in revealing a little at a time

Eleanor Catton’s skill is in revealing a little at a time


I took it camping with me over New Year, I took it up north over ANZAC weekend. I talked about it in work meetings (‘Is it a good story? I like a good story.’),  discussed it in Wellington (‘Im about half way through.’ ‘Me too’ ‘I keep forgetting which characters are which…might write it down.’) and as Mum and I ascended the Pinnacles  in the Coromandel, she assured me that things really pick up after about page 500 (She was right. Go Mum!)

And now, 832 pages later, my borrowed copy  of Eleanor Catton’s sits on my coffee table, ready to be returned to its owner in time for us to both to attend Cattons’s talk at the upcoming Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

I am pondering my opinion on The Luminaries. It is a good read. It didn’t grip me in the beginning (especially in the first chapter, all 360 pages of it). I read it in fits and starts of about 50 pages at a stint. But after the first chapter, I was away (ish). The basic premise of the story is quite simple – whodunit tale of the murder of hermit, Crosbie Wells, found dead in his hut on the road to Hokitika, in the 1860s as ’s West Coast was still in the thrill of its gold rush era. It’s a gothic which has a tapestry made up of sex, drugs, violent, forgery, revenge and murder and changing fortunes, with elements of the supernatural (ghosts and séances) .

The novel’s setting of a frontier town in New Zealand’s 19th century is a place so entirely foreign to most of the readers that the audience is by default reliant on Catton to guide them through the setting.  No doubt the historical authenticity of Catton’s Hokitika is good, but most of the readers won’t notice a slip, a fumbled line of dialogue from the actors, sorry characters, or a piece of 1890s furniture in one of the hotel bedrooms. We are reliant on the author to illuminate, and for the most part she does. But even after completing the novel, with the full light of understanding before me,  there are some patches of darkness that are left.

Much has been made of the novel’s structure, based on astrological charts. The path that each of the 12 main characters plays is determined by their astrological chart, and the chapter lengths are structured like the phases of the moon.  This structure doesn’t impinge on the novel’s narrative to the point that knowledge of astrology and tarot is required for the reader to enjoy the novel, but perhaps to fully understand the novel a bit more knowledge of such things would be useful. The novel is conscious that it is a novel, and conscious to remind its readers of this (such as the hyper textual techniques like ‘d—ed’ for damned and the introduction passages for each chapter ). Yet part of the game of  The Luminaries is the assertion that, as the book is written in the style of the 19thC gothic novel, the readers will be 19thC readers, astute to the conventions of a gothic novel and also with their own knowledge of 19th C astrology beliefs.

If the pace was a bit slow in the first third of the novel, a slow day on the claim, it was positively galloping in the final 200 pages or so. It felt almost as if Catton realised that all the loose ends needed to be tidied and fast, as the reader wouldn’t tolerate much beyond 800 pages.  Catton’s strength is not in beautiful prose, but in finessed story telling – the right puzzle piece turned over at the right time to solicit a certain thought from the reader. This finesse held the novel through the first 600 pages – of which comparatively little happens in a plot sense – while the plot revelations of the final quarter of the novel are equal if not more than the first three quarters. After being allowed such a long time to dwell on the significant and insignificant in the previous stage of the novel, this final bolt for the finish line was rather unsettling for this reader (although highly riveting!)

There is a certain sadness that comes with finishing a book. Perhaps the Germans have a term for it, because the characters and world you’ve been of will never again reveal anything new. There will be no new twists, new scenes nor any more pithy dialogue from characters. Yet perhaps this describes only a certain kind of novel. Many novels grow richer upon re-reading, new things reveal themelves. Perhaps this is the case with The Luminaries. Yet as Kirsty Gunn’s review suggests, perhaps not. Gunn argues (fairly and correctly) that the characters  ‘don’t gain depth as the story proceeds; they slip further away from us. The more words given to them, the less we know anything much about them.‘ The closer we look, the more they are just characters in a play – though not highly developed characters in  themselves,  the production of the play, the novel, is so finely crafted that we are all but seduced by this trompe-l’oeil.

New ZealandnovelreadingThe Luminarieswriting

freya • May 4, 2014

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