I hardly want to tell you anything about this book. Mostly I just want to tell you to go read it right away. Eleanor Catton, who has won a Booker Prize for The Luminaries at 28 years old and has thereby left half the world with their jaws agape, has pulled off a magic trick with this book.
It’s really hard for me to describe it as anything other than a magic trick. While reading it, I for some reason couldn’t help but contrast it with the magic involved in some amazing piece of machinery. I don’t really understand what’s happening in my iPhone, yet somehow that’s expected: it presents as a single smooth piece of glass, with all the magic carefully hidden away. The Luminaries, like all novels, shows you all its workings. Yet Catton’s novel feels more magical than any machine.
Catton plays with time, periodically jumping back years and months to explain how we got here. She plays with storytelling: characters tell stories that involve other characters, and the other characters inside the stories tell stories of their own. She plays with narration: our narrator is possibly omniscient, and it’s really hard to tell which era he or she is in: the narrator could exist in the 19th century like the rest of the novel, or could be telling us the whole story from a century on. For that matter, the narrator might be an incorporeal essence rather than a human.
Yet the most magical part of all is that, with all these magic tricks going on, Catton is a careful enough storyteller that she never leaves us behind. She knows that all the nested storytelling and playing with time could leave us confused, and paranoid that we’re missing something. So she’s careful to bring us along slowly: when she returns us to a character who exists at the intersection of three or four different stories, the story carefully reminds us of that character’s significance. And it’s not clunky at all: Catton has the characters dance with each other in such a way that they’re naturally going to explain to each other what’s going on. Catton’s handling of this complexity says both that she is a master of the story she’s telling, and completely understands the ear of the person she’s telling it to. This sort of deftness would be astonishing from writers of any age; from a 28-year-old, it’s practically a miracle.
You might be wondering what this book is about. I almost don’t want to tell you. How about if I just tell you about the first chapter. One of our fellows arrives in a New Zealand gold-rush town in the middle of the night, having just taken a journey by boat that unnerved him to his core. When he shows up at the inn where he’s to stay, he sits down before a fireplace in a comfortable leather chair, hoping to decompress and cast off the cares that followed him in from the sea. A talkative fellow starts chatting him up, and soon enough he realizes that all the other gentlemen in the room are listening very carefully while trying hard to seem nonchalant. All the others, in fact, seem to be occupying very prescribed spots in the room. Why are they listening? Why do they care?
The conversation between our voyager and his new intimates continues, until eventually someone says something that makes everyone else’s spines tingle. Suddenly the twelve men in the room, and the newcomer, realize that they are tied together by the ship voyage that our visitor has just taken. The rest of the room lights up. Suddenly all those who had been sitting quietly are very interested indeed in what this new fellow has to say.
Much of the book proceeds similarly. Characters end up in the same room as other characters, and start chatting amiably about the odd gossip that would consume any newcomer in a gold-rush town: everyone is out to make a fortune, and the world has been creates anew. Everyone is fresh off the boat from Scotland or England; even the prostitutes have just arrived. Yet somehow by the end of every conversation, something even more mysterious and unnerving has been revealed.
A long sequence of these dialogues could make you feel like you’re reading Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicles — an amazing read but a terrible tease. I always envision Murakami writing Wind-Up Bird during a weeks-long cocaine binge, at the end of which he checked himself into Betty Ford and wrapped up the book as quickly as he could. Alternatively, I envision him carrying on the world’s most thrilling juggling show, throwing chainsaws and jaguars and smaller versions of Haruki Murakami himself into the air, spinning them dazzlingly, and then — just when you think he can’t continue with this magical show any longer — deciding he’s bored and ending the whole show in an instant, the whole structure falling to the ground with a splat.
I was somewhat worried throughout The Luminaries that we’d have another Wind-Up Bird on our hands. I was only somewhat afraid, though: even from the beginning, it’s clear that Catton is completely in control of her narration, of her dialogue, and of the novel’s full architecture. Indeed, I would be astonished if she didn’t have the whole story literally mapped out on her wall, like James Joyce plotting out his characters’ motions around Dublin with the aid of a stopwatch.
It’s a masterpiece. I get chills of joy when I imagine what art this brilliant author will give to the world over her long career.