By Eleanor Catton
Read July 2014
Despite all the glowing reviews and the Booker Prize, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries fails to obey the first rule of fiction: Show, don’t tell. The novel opens with the long-winded telling of the same story by twelve different men: on the 1886 night when the richest man in the New Zealand gold fields went missing, a young whore tried to end her life and a hermit in the nearby hills died. Those twelve each represent a different astrological sign, and while an understanding of astrology may add layers of meaning to Catton’s story, that knowledge does not appear essential to understanding the book. Each of the men purport to have some special interest in the happenings they relate, but the hows and whys remain obscure. Eventually, we meet the suicidal whore, explore the hermit’s hovel with all its secrets, and are introduced to a slew of other characters major and minor. But for most of the 800 pages of this novel, the story always circles back to the open mysteries: What happened to the richest guy in the gold fields? Why did the whore try to kill herself? How did the hermit die? In addition to her astrological motif, Catton brandishes a bunch of gimmicks from Victorian novels, including a sea chest that goes missing, a huge but unsigned bequest, and a seance. And just like so many Victorian novels, this one goes on and on and on, telling and telling and telling while endlessly circling back to the opening mysteries. When the reader has just about given up hope of ever finding out the answers to those initial questions because the book has almost run out of pages, Catton provides a brief explanation that left this reader wondering, “That’s it?” Catton is no idiot, but after 800 pages of sound and fury, her story truly signifies nothing.