At first glance even the heft of Eleanor Catton’s novel The Luminaries seems prohibitive. Admittedly, even the first chanter left this reader wondering what the hell she had got herself into. But it is all a device of the narrative. Like many of the great nineteenth century novels, Catton inserts herself as narrator. It is a device to be sure, but one that works well, as so much of the novel is presented as a story itself.
In hindsight, one can see exactly how contrived the construction of this story is. Everything is shrouded in mystery until the very end, in which case we see it was not that complicated a story after all. If it had been told as a straight and simplistic narrative, rather than a scattered and slowly stitched back together narrative, it would not have been nearly as engaging. None of the characters are particularly likeable: thieves, murderers, opium addicts, etc., abound. And they all have their demons that play out on Hokitika in 1865-1866. One man marries the matron of a pleasure house and lives to regret it before his untimely death.
This plot device that in retrospect is nothing but a device, aloo makes for a truly engaging read. Yes, the story starts out slow with a lot of talk about Walter Moody’s story, but as we get into it, the question begs: what the hell? It keeps the many pages turning. And in the end, even though it appears that this was nothing more than a love story, the very idea that there was some sort of celestial connection to all the turnings was interesting. Money and romance make strange bedfellows, and that is really the gist of this whole thing. If there had not been a gold rush at the time, no one would really have come to Hokitika, and therefore none of the events would have happened.
What drives the novel as much as the mosaic-like plot is the characters. They are each very engaging for all of their flaws, Anna Wetherell and Walter Moody most particularly. These are two rather independent spirits who are trying to make their own way in the world. As is befitting of the time, Walter Moody is the more independent of the two. Anna’s actions, however, are still rather independent given the status of women at this time.
All in all I would say this is an enjoyable read, but I’m not so sure it would be as fun to reread. To study for structural integrity, sure, but not to reread for pleasure.