While I didn’t read as much as I had hoped over my vacation, I did manage to finish reading The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I can’t say I was blown away by it but I did enjoy it very much.
In spite of reading a number of blog posts by those of you who have read the book already I still managed to be surprised that the book is, at its core, a murder mystery. While the mystery itself is pretty run-of-the-mill, the interesting thing about this book is its structure.
We begin with Walter Moody fresh off the boat in Hokitika, New Zealand, 1866, during the gold rush. He has taken refuge in the club at his hotel after a bit of a harrowing boat ride to shore and finds himself intruding upon a meeting of twelve very different men that include a Maori, a Chinese, a newspaper editor, an apothecary, and a bank clerk. Because the twelve discover Moody arrived on the ship Godspeed owned and captained by a man who is part of the reason they are all meeting, Moody is taken into their confidence. And here we are spun a tale by each of the twelve men of their part in the mystery. None of them have the whole story and only by putting all the pieces together can they begin to make sense of it. But even then we don’t have everything we need to solve the crime. The telling of the twelve tales is full of character and detail and Catton takes her time in the spinning so that nearly half the book is done by the time all twelve have their say.
Then we move forward in time for a bit, still with different perspectives of various characters as they keep the secret of their meeting, or not, and as they find out more information, some that clarifies and some that muddies. Eventually we reach a point where the timeline breaks apart and we alternate between moving forward in the present and learning the details of what happened in the past that led up to the crime and we discover this is also a kind of love story as well.
The structure and the pacing and the lush language keep this huge book from bogging down too much (it does get a little boggy but only a little which isn’t bad considering it is over 800 pages). The style also helps. It has a bit of a Victorian novel flavor right from the start with each chapter heading containing a brief description of what happens in the chapter. This does not give anything away before you read it because it is so general, things like Frost tells a lie and a secret is revealed. At the beginning these little chapter outlines (is there a technical term for them? Does anyone know?) are short and the chapters very long. As the book progresses, the outlines get longer and the chapters shorter until at the end the outlines are no longer outlines but narratives and the chapters are snips of moments and conversations and the outline/narrative becomes longer than the chapter. It totally works to balance out the book with its long, slow beginning and galloping conclusion. Really well done.
Each chapter is named from an astrological star chart but I didn’t bother to look up what they meant. I presume they are related to what happens in the chapter, an additional layer of interest but not a necessary one to either understand or enjoy the book.
Catton must have had quite a time juggling the complexity of the structure and the book’s various layers not to mention the large cast of characters. I’d love to see her notes and outlines or however it was that she managed to keep track of it all. How to plan out and keep something like that organized would be a fascinating conversation all on its own.