The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

In which Eleanor Catton demonstrates that a good story, well told, is a pleasure that holds its own against many a modern literary fad.

An opium-addled half-dead prostitute, a wily and unprincipled metaphorical gold digger, a completely dead literal gold digger, a wily and unprincipled ship’s captain, forged signatures and a stranger crashing a secret meeting in a hotel…goodness it’s exciting in Hokitika, New Zealand, in 1866. There’s a missing trunk and frocks with nuggets of pure gold sewn into their seams and backstories galore, all told through an omniscient third person narrative. Any novel that lines such as, ‘In deference to the harmony of the turning spheres of time we shall resume our tale exactly at the moment Balfour left off…’ is a novel I’m going to enjoy.

The Luminaries is a great, fat, old-fashioned novel with a great, fat, old-fashioned plot that revolves around who did what to whom and why. It has the loveliest cover of any of the Man Booker longlisted titles. It will make a fine film – or better still, a fine four-part television drama. It contains a classic, edge-of- your-seat courtroom scene. It may be the second longest novel on the longlist – in fact, it’s the longest, because The Kills is actually four novels (and a film, and a great deal of multi-media extra features), but such are its page-turning qualities that it feels much shorter that some of the others.

And there my review would end, were it not for the Man Booker longlist. But longlist raises the bar. It’s no longer simply about telling a good story well – it’s about something more. A little innovation, perhaps, or an aspect to the plot that makes you look at something – anything – in a new light, or see something for the first time. The something more is unquantifiable and impossible to define, and depends to a large extent upon the reader. For me, The Luminaries does what’s been done before with style and grace. It does it better than a thousand other novels. It pushes no boundaries and strains no conventions. Why on earth should it? It is the vintage Valentino ballgown on the red carpet of this year’s longlist. Classic, voluminous, wonderfully embellished – and safe.

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