Eleanor Catton is undoubtedly a very clever writer. She has taken what might have been a fairly ordinary mystery story set in the goldfields of New Zealand’s South Island and made it something worthy of the attention of the Booker Prize judges. How has she done this? In three ways. Firstly, because the story is set in the mid nineteenth century, she has chosen a style which is a pastiche of novelists of the period. This includes chapter headings giving a summary of what is going to happen; but more importantly it allows her to adopt the authorial overview permitting her to comment on the action and the characters as the story develops. Secondly, she has split the narrative between thirteen characters, all of whom know part of the story but none of whom know it all, so that the reader finds herself having to piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle. Thirdly, she has based the whole thing on the astrological situation prevailing at the time and place of the setting. Since I know nothing of astrology, I am afraid this was lost on me. The chapter headings ‘Jupiter in Sagittarius’ etc and the star charts at the beginning of each section meant nothing to me.
I read an interview with Catton in which she said that she found many minor characters in other books were insufficiently realized and became cardboard cutouts, so she wanted to make all of hers equally detailed. It is true that she gives a psychological profile to each of them; but it is words and action that bring a character to life, and I must admit that there were times when I found myself having to leaf back through the pages to remind myself of who a character was and what his part in the story was.
The Luminaries is an intriguing tale and I was gripped all through, but the ending left me feeling frustrated. I was waiting for a full explanation of all the strange events, but it never came. There is a trial, but since none of the witnesses tells the whole truth but adheres to a version they have decided on among themselves, this left me with many unanswered questions. After that, the book disintegrates into a series of fragments, snatches of dialogue that mean very little, and the only narrative thrust is contained in the increasingly lengthy chapter headings. From these it is possible to piece together some of the answers but there were still elements of the mystery that seemed to me to be unexplained; and I was left with the sneaking suspicion that the author did not know the answers either!
This caveat apart, I can recommend this book to those who are prepared to use their own deductive abilities and do not expect to be spoon fed the facts.