Book review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Eleanor Catton. Picture: Contributed
Eleanor Catton. Picture: Contributed
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Eleanor Catton’s doorstopper of a novel reads like a New Zealand Wilkie Collins, says Lesley McDowell

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Granta, 832pp, £18.99

The 19th-century New Zealand novel has variously been considered “something of an embarrassment’”, an expression of a masculinist culture, or an inferior literary form compared to letters or journals. It has been considered non-existent, its Gothic practitioners obscured and forgotten; pioneers, new arrivals to the country, simply imported their own heritage that viewed the country from their perspective.

This means that where British readers may find a seamless legacy of 19th-century writing, New Zealanders find their own literary heritage harder to trace and document.

Where is the New Zealand Charles Dickens or George Eliot? To even ask the question is an act of colonialism, imposing the values of one nation on another.

All of which makes me wonder about Eleanor Catton’s expansive, and in many places, quite superb, new work. At over 800 pages, does this Canadian-born but New Zealand-raised writer’s doorstopper of a book recall the Victorian works so adored by British audiences during that era? Or does it instead try to subvert them? Does Catton want to emphasise a tradition that existed but has been given little attention? Or try to establish a tradition where none really existed?

James Joyce said that he wanted to turn the English language upside down and inside out with Finnegans Wake – that it was a political act.

Some will see Catton’s quite extraordinary effort here simply as New Zealand’s answer to Wilkie Collins, with all its fake identities, stolen gold sneaked into the linings of dresses, opium dealers and murder.

But if we consider Catton’s first novel, the more post-modern tale of a high-school sex scandal, experimental in form and daring in what it had to say about adolescent sexuality, perhaps we should be prepared to trust that there’s a great deal more to her novel than the aping of a past style and narrative.

The Luminaries begins on 27 January, 1866, when Walter Moody, a young Scotsman newly arrived in the gold-rush town of Hokitiki, walks in on 12 men gathered together in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel. Though the narration of one of those men, Thomas Balfour, we will learn what they are all doing there – a man, Crosbie Wells, has been murdered, and a prostitute, Anna Wetherill, has been found trying to commit suicide.

There is a connection between the two events and each of the men is up to his neck in the nefarious goings-on of the town. Pritchard is the pharmacist who, together with Quee Long and Sook Yongsheng, has kept Anna hooked on opium. Edgar Clinch is a hotelier in love with her, Aubert Gascoigne a law man who has tried to be her friend.

As Balfour, a shipping agent, tells his story, we become aware of yet others in the picture – a Francis Carver who was brother to the dead man, Crosbie Wells, and Lydia, who was his wife. Or so it would seem. There is also an Alistair Lauderback who is running for political office, and a young man, Emery Staines, who has disappeared just after he found a fortune in gold, and which he seems to have bequeathed a share of to Anna.

A newspaper editor, Benjamin Lowenthal, takes over the narration at one point, then it is Moody’s turn, to explain the sight he saw on board the ship to Hokitiki, and how it connects to the events that have brought the other 12 men together.

So far, so Wilkie Collins. Catton introduces multiple narrators and turns what appear to be established relationships on their heads, exposing them as fake; she twists and turns throughout her characters’ tales, undoing first impressions and working backwards to tell us in flashback what turned Wetherill into a prostitute, for instance (and indeed, if she even is one).

She revels in the mix of races and nationalities, just as Collins did, but she disproves the stereotypes that cling to the Chinese who arrive on these shores, or to the native Maoris. She doesn’t erase prejudices but she does expose them for what they are.

The power of Lydia Wells, as the madam of a brothel and soon-to-be legitimate hotel owner, does defy the masculinity of this culture; the technology of the newspapers and process of the law courts both give short shrift to the primitive perception that outsiders have of this country.

All of this suggests subversion, a political act indeed. But there is a problem with characterisation, especially in a novel of this size. While Anna and Lydia stand out easily enough, the men do not. Catton has a tendency to establish characters by summarising their appearance in a long paragraph, then by giving us another long paragraph to expound on their moral views or emotional predilections. This is scarcely enough to separate out a list of individual men who exist on a vast canvas and lunar indications, charted at the beginning of each section, and each chapter, don’t help.

Catton writes with real sophistication and intelligence, so this weak characterisation is at odds with the rest of the novel, its intricate plotting and carefully wrought scenes. Can it be part of her subversion of the 19th-century narrative? I suspect not – but with a talent like Catton’s, one can never be too sure.