I had intended my opener here to be a smug prediction of Catton’s Booker glory, but since I cracked the spine on The Luminaries, it’s already been shortlisted—which makes my prediction of glory seem like a pretty glib piece of prognostication. Still, though, the writer’s played an absolute blinder here, and if I had a spare tenner it’d be slapped down immediately; I haven’t read as enthralling or compellingly-plotted piece of literary fiction since, well, Mantel’s historical babies.
Like her début, The Rehearsal, The Luminaries is formally distinctive and very clever; the first book, which explored a student-teacher affair and the subsequent fallout amongst the other students, was all about performativity and gender, and this one’s a mysterious whodunnit set in the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s, and it’s based on the tarot. That is, the structure (twelve parts, diminishing in length, each with fewer composite chapters than the last) and the characters reflect the patterns and archetypes of the zodiac. That might sound a little over-intellectualised, but by hell, it’s not: it’s immensely readable. Catton’s what I’d call an ideas person: she’s claimed in interviews that it’s the philosophical or intellectual dimension of her books that come first, and in this case, the tarot and the resulting pretty intricate structure were the basis for the book, rather than the plot itself. But that’s not to say that the plot feels secondary; in fact, like her characterization, it’s vast and complex and utterly convincing—so much so that a summary feels nigh-on impossible. Still, let’s give it a shot, though I’m doing the novel a huge injustice here: Walter Moody, a wanna-be gold-digger, arrives in a New Zealand mining town after a stormy and terrifying sea-voyage, and on his first night he accidentally barges in on a secret meeting: twelve disparate men have come together furtively to compare notes on a series of local crimes that seem both inexplicable and interlinked and that have somehow managed to implicate all of them. A former prostitute was found insensate from opium, her dress laden down with gold nuggets, but she doesn’t know how they got there; a rich young prospector has gone missing; a politician has found a hermit dead in his shack, a hoard of undeclared gold has since been unearthed on the property, and a hitherto unknown widow has turned up to collected it. Add in revenge, unrequited love, a ghost, the gold industry itself, and the problematic racial issues between the Maori, the white settlers and the indentured Chinese workers, and you’ve got a complex social spread and a plot that manages deftly to straddle both the fantastic and the historical.
I’m no expert, but Catton’s mimicry of the nineteenth century idiom is assured and feels authentic, and the novel’s historical detail is rich and convincing without dragging the prose into a mire of precious research (McEwan and Franzen, I’m looking at you). Her characters may be based on astrological standards, but they’re thoroughly individualized. The chapters alternate POVs, so we get contrasting and entertaining portrayals of each of them in turn, complete with various perspectives on the rough-and-ready newly fledged settler society they inhabit. Her prose is lyrical, without verging on pretentiousness (eh, Banville?), but it’s also funny, and her dialogue is persuasive and never stilted. The biggies, in terms of what might put you off this behemoth, are, of course, the size (heading on for 1,000 pages) and the historical nature of it, though I think the success of Mantel has probably popularized historical novels enough amongst the lit-fic crowd to largely neutralize that wariness; nevertheless, to put it fully to rest—The Luminaries is a cracking read that isn’t at all hobbled by either its bulk or its setting; both, in fact, are to its credit, in so far as Catton makes the period enormously interesting, so much that I’d have happily kept reading beyond its final page. For the Mantel-haters (shame on you!), don’t worry about ‘readability’ (shame on you, Stella Remington); Catton’s work may be heavily stylised, but it’s not difficult on a page-by-page reading—the complexity comes out more when you start to marvel at the structure and the parallels with the tarot. If I were to compare it with anything, it might be Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, and not only because of the brothels in both. The proportion of male to female characters is a negative, but it’s one Catton has acknowledged, and those two characters do feature very prominently, so that’s a plus.
Any Cop?: A resounding A+ from me; I’m already looking forward to her next one. Let’s see if the Booker judges concur. One way or the other, it’s good to see the literary spotlight swivel over to NZ, a land full of talented writers rather too much lacking in international coverage.