The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

As I was in the process of reading this novel, it was announced to be the winner of this year’s Mann Booker Prize. Whilst I still wish that We Need New Names had won I am nevertheless pleased with this alternative. The Luminaries is an impressive volume, in size, style and intrigue. It is a tale about numerous characters experiencing life in the New Zealand gold rush in the nineteenth century. Written with a nineteenth century cadence, embracing an era in which the novel was at its height of popularity and influence, and the novelist was unquestioned in their authority, the book has a nostalgic charm, quite apart from the fact that the particulars of the story make for a page-turning frenzy in the reader. It really is a joy to read.

I like the chapter summaries, again so reminiscent of earlier forms of the novel, and I love the careful, and slightly formal, construction of the language. From the beginning I am keen to unravel the mystery of Francis Carver, a scarred ex-conman who has seemingly involved other New Zealand dwellers in crimes they did not intend to perpetrate.

I would have liked to find out more about Walter Moody – the character who introduces us to the gold town of Hokitika and the criminal machinations of Francis Carver – and what happened to him after he helps to bring Carver to justice. In fact, there are many character ends that are left to our speculation in favour of the astrologically twinned young characters, Anna Wetherall and Emery Staines whose first intended romantic encounter ends the novel. I assume they are the luminaries around which events are influenced, but it isn’t quite as straightforward as that – indeed all the characters are people of influence somehow destined to interact.

I do not follow astrological charts and perhaps I would get more from the novel if I did, but I think it is testament to the writing that I can enjoy the book without knowledge of astrology.

However, despite all of these accolades, I still think We Need New Names is the true book for our age. Giving We Need New Names the prize would have been a more radical choice, would have forced more of us to contend with a novel whose subject matter and delivery is more forward thinking, more challenging. As much as I enjoyed The Luminaries and feel its creation does indeed need to be praised, it is the more sentimental choice. But perhaps a choice the panellists were more likely to make given a heavy interest in nineteenth century literature: Chair, Robert Macfarlane, did a PhD on George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde; Robert Douglas-Fairhurst specialises in the nineteenth century as his books make clear, Becoming Dickens (2011) and Victorian Afterlives (2002); Martha Kearney presented a documentary on Jane Austen; Stuart Kelly wrote Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented A Nation. The only panellist with an obvious love for another period is Natalie Haynes who loves the classics. It’s not really a surprise then that they favoured Eleanor Catton’s novel. Ah well. At least it’s a great rip-roaring tale.