It’s fiercely intelligent. The language consistently reflects the mid-19th century, and rolls along in an improbable mix of luxuriously precise prose. Sometimes I stop and reread sections aloud to savour the sound and the rhythm of the words on my tongue.
The plot, a murder/mystery of sorts, is complex and richly textured. It will have you working overtime to process the information you discover, and then work out how this shades the characters’ actions and motivations. The challenge is as exhilarating as a cryptic crossword and as exciting as connecting disparate pieces and finding meanings.
Catton’s understanding and insight into human character are astronomical. In one ironic sentence she captures the uneasiness of a character who is aware his actions had been morally dubious. “ He was getting worked up; evidently this was a subject on which he had desired to defend himself for some time.”
Much of the beauty in The Luminaries comes from her depictions of place. In the following excerpt the settlement of Kaniere opens up before the reader’s eyes at the same time it does for the characters. Catton starts with a broad sweep of the landscape, positioning ‘the canvas settlement’ in the ‘lattice of gullies and streams’ between the Alps and the sea. Just the one word, ‘canvas ‘ expands to take in the transient, makeshift and rudimentary nature of the settlement.
“The canvas settlement of Kaniere was stationed as a midpoint between Hokitika and the inland claims. The land around the settlement was fairly flat, rutted by a veritable lattice of gullies and streams, all of them bearing stones and gravel down from the Alps, towards the sea; the sound of moving water was ever-present here, as a distant roar, a click, a rush, a patter. As one early surveyor had put it, on the Coast, wherever there was water, there was gold – and there was water all about, water dripping from the ferns, water beading on the branches, water making fat the mosses that hung from the trees, water filling one’s footsteps, welling up.” (p208)
From the broader picture the paragraph narrows to one element – water, used synonymously here with gold. Water bears down from the Alps on its way to the sea in a variety of sonorous movements, as does the gold the characters covet.
The details Catton uses are specific, concrete and meaningful. We are placed in a landscape of ferns, trees, moss, and the ubiquitous water. She uses words such as ‘dripping‘ and ‘making fat‘, bringing to mind people dripping in money, and getting fat on the proceeds. The ‘water beading on the branches‘ suggests something sparkling. The images are strong of a boot making an indent in the sodden earth, and watching as the water fills the footprint, welling up inside it. The scene is submersed in water, and consequently in gold.
Each micro detail adds reality and dependability to the scene, and at the same time, hints at the layers of meanings in the text. Rarely do you find a work of fiction that is so beautifully rendered in every aspect of writing craft that it deserves an emerging writers’ intense analysis and study. This novel is one of them.