The Luminaries is a Victorian 19th century mystery novel. This sounds already exciting. But the charm of this book does not stop merely at beautifully developing a whodunit case. There is also a very interesting structuring of time here and a decadent goth atmosphere. And I mean really decadent. Through some 850 pages in this book you can almost smell the tobacco, the oily liquor and the acute briny scent of the sea in Hokitika, the small and not so luminous coast town in New Zealand, where the story is set.
There is also of course the ace in the hold; a complex story structured in interconnected layers, where every character knows at least something which is not obvious or disclosed to the others; not to begin with anyway. Each player hence contributes their own viewpoint of the narrative, and, in turn, these different perspectives interweave to lead to the bottom of the mystery.
At the same time, Eleanor Catton is completely in control of these wavy plot lines. If all the above sounds complicating to you, it’s because .. man.. they are!
She does recap from time to time however, through the eyes of either a major character or an objective outside observer and this is done subtly and elegantly too. Nothing is neither in-your-face-obvious nor boring in this novel, another reason why The Luminaries is clever without being heartless. This is not an intelligent read which reeks of insincerity due to being trapped in its own vanity, and you've got to give it to Eleanor Catton, because with such a dense plot and seductive era chosen to dive in to, from a literary perspective, the danger of frigidness and alienation was big; she avoided it fine!
That said, her prose didn’t get me excited. I mean it did, but not excited excited.
“It was a private practice, and one he would likely have denied—for how roundly self-examination is condemned, by the moral prophets of our age! As if the self had no relation to the self, and one only looked in mirrors to have one’s arrogance confirmed”.
“He was a private hedonist, perennially wrapped in the cocoon of his own senses, mindful, always, of the things he already possessed, and the things he had yet to gain; his subjectivity was comprehensive, and complete”.
Eleanor, you’re eloquent, precise, convincing and I salute you. I think Dickens would also salute you. But I’m not down in pieces and I’m not lost in another era trying to come back to 2013. A soon as I put the book back on the shelf, I was back. Plus, I didn’t get the astrology. Was there a symbolism I’m supposed to have detected?
But then again Eleanor, you made me respect the microsocial norms of Hokitika and the conviction of the locals for their order of things. The 1860s felt graceful while they lasted. I think you've got yourself a new reader who will be watching!