Eleanor Catton came to prominence with her 2007 debut, The Rehearsal, which won international acclaim, and was awarded The Betty Trask Award, and a long-listing for the Orange Prize in 2010. There was, then, high expectation for her second novel. Before it had even been published in the UK, that second novel, The Luminaries, had been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013. Coming in at over 800 pages, The Luminaries is a complex, multi-layered novel that owes a debt to both Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but yet feels fresh, thrilling and very modern despite its 1860s setting.
Opening in January 1866, Walter Moody has just disembarked off Godspeed, a barque that has bought him to Hokitika on the west coast of New Zealand where a gold rush is forcing towns to spring out of the barren landscape. He checks into the Crown Hotel where, unbeknown to him, 12 men have gathered. As Moody is quietly interrogated, he reveals to men that he can be trusted, and they step forward to discuss their part in a sequence of events that has rocked their world.
Two weeks earlier, a hermit had been discovered dead in his cabin. On the same night, one of the richest men in town disappears, and a local whore is found insensible on the roadside. Much of this story fills the first chapter of the novel, which is almost half the novels’ length, as multiple narrators step forward and fill in some blanks, confuse in others, as the truth of what happened that night is slowly revealed.
There is a lot going on in The Luminaries, but it is testament to Catton’s skill and control over her material that it never becomes hard-going and remains, at all times, utterly engaging. The scope of her novel is huge: she deals with life in a community torn asunder by gold, power plays, political scandal, passions run wild, betrayal, murder and conspiracies. It is also a wild book, designed to take you on a thrill ride through a gripping tale.
The Luminaries then is an epic, clever novel, one that attempts to emulate a novelistic form many would say is dead and has no relevance – but proves triumphantly that those big Dickensian style novels can work in the twenty-first century and that they can still have something to say and the power to shock and surprise. Many contemporary novels attempt to emulate cinema, and feel slimmed down and brief because there is a belief readers no longer have the concentration span for such material. This feels like one of those novels you have to read, before cinema takes it and dilutes it. It feels like the antidote to that blithely stupid statement that readers have no concentration span. The Luminaries is a rare breed, a rare novel, and a beautiful one.
Will it be shortlisted?
I hope that it is. Writing of this kind is rare and should be treasured, but I fear its scope and range might intimidate.