Cameron Davis ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
When ambition and opportunity conspire with greed, the ripple effects can be complex. Such is the case in The Luminaries, an intense, masterful web of a novel by Eleanor Catton. The novel is set in 19th century New Zealand on the cusp of a gold rush. A string of crimes slowly unites a group of twelve men who are each implicated in the crimes in different ways. Released by Little, Brown and Co in 2013 (and winner of a Man Booker Prize to boot), The Luminaries is a novel that has staying power—the nuances of the plot stay with the reader long after it has been completed.
It is hard to classify this book into a distinct genre category. Is it a mystery, historical fiction, or psychological thriller? Each of the three is true in different respects, but the genre of The Luminaries is arbitrary compared to the sheer amount of precision with which Catton exacts her words.
There are no accidents in the construction of this novel. Every sentence – every word – is carefully placed with purpose. The intricacies of the plot that involves so many different people are handled delicately. It is hard not to admire the way the threads are woven together to create a story that is not only compelling but also matches up perfectly with a number of astrological entities. Each of the twelve characters and their involvement in the story perfectly aligns with a zodiac sign. A small set of secondary – but still important – characters represent planets, the Sun, and the Moon. Catton does an inordinate amount of work to keep these relationships consistent, which is immensely impressive.
While the ambitious nature of the plot is admirable from the standpoint of craft, from a reader’s point of view it can make for a confusing read. There are so many different layers of plot to consider while reading that the narrative can get lost in the shuffle. Yes, the relationships to celestial bodies are maintained exceptionally well, but due to the author’s pastiche technique, the central voice is often unclear because of so many shifts in perspective. What the book is trying to say never really comes to fruition.
Instead, it is more of a character study—an interesting one, yes, but one that can seem self-contained and that mistakes confusing plot devices for intellectual complexity. It is well written, but clearer execution could have lent itself to a more substantial message. Still, the ending packs a punch, because as is common with character-driven novels, the level of emotional investment in the characters – if not the plot – is high.
Overall, The Luminaries is worth reading. All too often, stories give a perspective that is not nearly as emotionally nuanced as this one. Despite the occasionally frustrating plot structure, it contains observations about human nature that are worthwhile. It also has a whodunit-style hook that will keep anyone intrigued enough to invest in getting to the end. The most important idea that this novel emphasizes is that morality is never black and white—not when things like money, weakness, and secrecy stand in the way. This is a concept that can stand to be reinforced.