Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Hard to hold, hard to put down

Eleanor Catton's massive 2013 novel The Luminaries manages to be both hard to hold for long and hard to put down. Set in New Zealand in 1865 and 1866, the novel blends a Victorian style of storytelling with a modern, nonlinear style of storytelling.

The story itself involves mysterious deaths, stolen treasure, missing people and lives gone astray. Catton's novel has so many characters that there may be no true protagonist. Yet four characters most hold our attention. Anna Wetherall is an alluring young woman forced into both prostitution and opium addiction. Emery Staines is a young man even more innocent and gullible than Anna, whom he loves. Francis Carver, though he actually appears very little in the book, is nevertheless always in the immediate background, the cause, along with Lydia Wells Carver, of much of the harm that comes to others in the story.

The narrative begins in the middle of the story, when several men in Hokitika, a gold-mining town, meet secretly to talk about what has been going on and what should be done about it. One of these men is Walter Moody, a newcomer to town who eventually represents both Wetherall and Staines when they, not the Carvers, are taken to court. These trials all but end the story, but then Catton takes us back to the beginning to show us what really happened, although even then leaving huge questions unanswered.

Early chapters are long, detailed and proceed at a leisurely pace, yet gradually Catton speeds up the pace as chapters get shorter and shorter and tell us less and less. She gives her novel an astrological structure with 12 parts, one for each sign, and chapters with titles like "Jupiter in Capricorn" and "Mars in Aquarius." Yet, thankfully, the story itself has little to do with astrology, except perhaps in Catton's mind. The real message of the novel is not that we are influenced by the stars. Rather we are influenced, for good or ill, by the actions of other people, many other people. And, as in the novel, none of us is the main character.

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