This last year I read several books that played wonderfully with structure. I’m thinking particularly of A Visit from the Goon Squad, a series of stories linked by their characters that somehow forms a whole, and Life After Life, in which the heroine’s life is repeated, with slight changes that lead to significant ones. I loved both of these inventive approaches to structure, and now I add to this list The Luminaries, the latest winner of the Man Booker Prize. This book is also my second recently reviewed novel set in New Zealand.
Walter Moody is newly come to the gold fields of the South Island of New Zealand in 1866. He has arrived in rough seas and is shaken by an apparition he has seen in the bowels of the ship. Seeking warmth and comfort, he checks into a seedy waterfront hotel and enters the parlor, where he accidentally interrupts the meeting of 12 other men.
After some initial hesitancy, the men begin telling him a series of tales, all interconnected, but the whole of which they cannot make out. The tales concern a missing trunk, a fortune found in a dead man’s cabin, the disappearance of a prominent citizen, the apparent attempted suicide of a whore. Each man at the meeting has his own part of the story to impart. Moody is able to make some sense of the story, but all go away from the meeting knowing that pieces are missing.
This section of the book is the longest, making up almost half its length. The cover of the novel, showing a waning moon, gives you a hint to its structure. It is divided into 12 sections, each one shorter than the one before but each one adding to the revelations of the original tales, until the final very short slivers of sections reveal all.
Each of these sections is also headed with an astrological chart that shows how the heavenly bodies are positioned within the signs of the 12 initial characters. This I did not understand at all, but Catton provides some indication at the beginning of the sections about what the astrology predicts.
The chapters of the novel are charmingly headed with old-fashioned descriptions of what happens in the chapter. Over time, the descriptions themselves begin to drive the narrative.
In The Luminaries, we’re presented with a novel that embodies a puzzle, a complex tale of villainy and foul crimes but also of love and loyalty. I was completely engrossed in entangling the threads of this story. Despite its beginnings as a tale of cheats and chicanery, you may be surprised to find that you are reading a love story about two characters connected by their stars.