I’ve just spent 4 working days listening to one book, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013), 832 pp or 29 hours 18 minutes in audio form. This is the 20 something New Zealander’s second novel and it won her the 2013 Man Booker.
From where I was sitting, over those 4 long days, when not out of the truck loading or unloading, or catching up on news and footy on the ABC, this was a straightforward murder mystery set in the NZ South Is. goldfields in the 1860s and written in a consistent 19th century style, the story dependent on a series of unlikely coincidences, and of course, a whore with a heart of gold.
The plot revolves around a newcomer to newly built gold rush town Hokitika, on the west coast, stumbling into a meeting of 12 men and being immediately included into their fears and concerns about missing men and missing gold. The omniscient author takes us backwards and forwards through the stories of each of these men and then gradually adds in new players.
It all seems rather derivative, especially for a Man Booker winner, rather like a painter in the style of Hans Heysen being awarded a major art prize. According to Wikipaedia what I couldn’t see as the book was being read to me was the cleverness of its underlying structure. Apparently the twelve men in the room represent the signs of the zodiac, the newcomer (Moody) and other main characters represent the sun and the moon and so on, and the chapters progressively decline in size representing the waning of the moon. I’m sure that makes sense to someone.
And then there’s that whole historical novel thing, the principal characters include a Maori and two chinese who are three of the 12 in the initial meeting. Catton can write until she’s blue in the face but 19th century goldfields did NOT have 21st century race relations.
“All this brings us to one question. Why did Catton choose to write her novel in this style? Is it riff, pastiche, reworking, or homage? I’m not sure, but it sure seems to have got a lot of people talking. As for me … I’m still puzzling!
E. Catton, The Luminaries, on Brilliance Audio, performed by Mark Meadows