September 6, 2013 7:21 pm

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

An epic of New Zealand’s gold rush with a 19th-century feel

 The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, Granta, RRP£18.99, 848 pages

 

It is January 27 1866 in the gold rush town of Hokitika in New Zealand’s South Island when a handsome stranger, Walter Moody, shaken by something terrible he has seen on board the barque Godspeed from which he has just come ashore, disturbs a secret conclave of 12 assorted townsmen in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel. The men soon give up the pretence that they are unconnected and acknowledge their common purpose.

Thomas Balfour acts as spokesman and tells Moody the events that have brought them together. A couple of weeks earlier three significant things occurred. The town’s “richest man”, having spent the night with a whore, disappeared. The whore was found almost dead of a drug overdose, and with no recollection of what happened. And a hermit landowner was found dead, apparently of natural causes, in his remote cabin which contained a fortune in gold.

Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-longlisted second novel, The Luminaries, involves the interlocking stories of a Jewish newspaper editor, an Irish Free Methodist chaplain, a dapper Norwegian merchant, a brilliantly quick-tongued Frenchman, two Chinese men (one a goldsmith, the other a prospector and opium addict), a grumpy but noble Maori prospector for pounamu (jade), a “blackguard” sea captain, a fascinating whore, a pallid banker, a vicious jailer, a wicked widow, a publicly flamboyant, privately peevish politician ... and more, including bluff boring Balfour, a shipping agent. Finally there is that missing “richest” townsman, on whose absence the story pivots, and who emerges after 600 pages as a golden-haired, truth-telling youth.

Each of these characters is developed over many pages. They are “stock” but it is good stock. The reader comes to know and enjoy them. The mysteries and the melodrama multiply, each story seeming to lead into another. The tone is cool, the telling clear, almost hard-headed, except in one late aspect where it slides towards sentimentality.

The story is related with exceptional detail and verisimilitude, and frequent moral or psychological observation: “When a restless spirit is commissioned, under influence, to solve a riddle of another man, his energies are, at first, readily and faithfully applied. But Thomas Balfour’s energies tended to span a very short duration, if the project to which he was assigned was not a project of his own devising. His imagination gave way to impatience, and his optimism to an extravagant ... ”

And so on, at great length. I assume we have the expression “tended to span a very short duration” rather than “did not last long”, and the repetitions of “energies” and “project” – and the chintzy upholstered tone of it all – in the interest of a pastiche of the 19th-century novel. Why else would the word damned be spelt “d__ned” whenever it occurs; along with “b___er”, and “f___ing”? There is a feeling of precocious imitation – the literary equivalent, I sometimes felt, of unearned income.

Every episode has its setting, decor, clothing, its period bric-a-brac, its slightly formal but often sharp dialogue. This is costume drama. It is conventional fiction but with the attention to fact and connection that the (cross-checking and online research) facilities of the modern computer permit. That apart, only the author’s cultural sensitivity in dealing with Maori and Chinese characters, and an occasional anachronistic word or phrase in the dialogue (“paranoid”, “serendipitous”) locate authorship in the present.

The history of literary fiction in the 20th century was a struggle, never entirely successful, to escape from this kind of writing. It is the mode of the novel in its Victorian heyday, with something also of the 20th-century murder mystery, which was always indifferent to literary modernism. It is, you might say, Virginia Woolf’s nightmare of how many steps back a woman might take the form if given her head and a room of her own. There is also an astrological structure that I have allowed myself to pass over.

Exhaustively “authentic”, the story is also shamelessly implausible – in its particular events but more, in their fortuitous combinations. I discover my own limits here – those of the impatient realist. My difficulty is similar to one I have with much of Peter Carey’s work (and Catton is quite his equal): that it doesn’t allow me to forget, even for a moment, that this is fiction – the novel as game, played brilliantly, but at such length I couldn’t entirely overcome that impatience. Ingenuity outruns admiration and becomes tedious. I finished the novel acknowledging enormous talent but feeling the demands made on time and attention offered insufficient human or intellectual return.

There is also the problem that such a conventional “story” requires a conventional rounding off and bowing out; but so many hares, false and real, have been set running, no tidy resolution is possible, and The Luminaries tails off in a tangle of loose ends.

CK Stead is author of ‘Risk’ (MacLehose Press)

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