It’s easy to toss around words like “potential” and “promising” when a young author forges the kind of impression made by Eleanor Catton with her 2009 debut, The Rehearsal, a formally tricky but assured novel that hinged on teacher-student sexual relations. It won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and the Betty Trask Award, and was a finalist for a handful of other plaudits, including the prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize for the best work by a writer under the age of 30. Making good on those expectations is another matter. With her ambitious second novel, Catton has accomplished that – and a great deal more.
The Luminaries, which has already been longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, would rank as a remarkable achievement for a writer of any age, let alone one still several years shy of her 30th birthday. Catton, who was born in London, Ontario, and raised in New Zealand, has surpassed the daring and assurance of her previous effort with a massive, intricate, painstakingly detailed and deliciously readable historical yarn set amid the scrabbling greed of a mid-1860s gold rush in Hokitika on New Zealand’s South Island.
Weighing in at more than 800 pages, The Luminaries more than winks back at 19th-century storytelling: the cast of characters is long; the chapters are prefaced by synopses such as, “In which our allegiances have shifted, as our countenance makes clear”; and dashes are used to shield the full spelling of words like “damn” from the gentle reader’s potentially scandalized eyes. The story, steeped in astrology, charts the interwoven fates of scheming colonial fortune seekers, star-crossed half-brothers, indentured Chinese gold diggers, a Maori aboriginal and, pivotally, an exploited, opium-addicted prostitute bequeathed a small fortune by a young admirer who has unaccountably disappeared and may or may not be dead.
As with The Rehearsal, The Luminaries favours a non-linear approach, with shifting points of view designed to keep the reader guessing. The story isn’t as sprawling as might be imagined from its formidable length. Much of the narrative involves doubling back on a handful of crucial circumstances and events, seen from various perspectives but cleverly framed by a narrator who can be relied upon (or perhaps not) to “impose a regimental order upon the impatient chronicle” by applying “mortar and cracks to the chinks of earthly recollection.” The Luminaries is a novel that can be enjoyed for its engrossing entirety, as well as for the literary gems bestowed on virtually every page.