Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is – in case you’ve somehow managed to miss all the fuss – a doorstopper of a novel, set in Hokitika in the middle of the gold rush in the 1860s. This Man Booker prize-winning novel is elaborate and complex, with a large cast of characters whose lives are intertwined around a mystery that the reader gets to unravel.
Reviewing The Luminaries seems timely, as the TV series has just come to an end. On that note, I have a confession to make: I didn’t get past the first episode. As we all know, so often when a book is adapted for the screen, it just doesn’t live up to the original. I know some preferred the TV series to the book (and to be fair, watching six episodes takes way less effort than reading 800 pages), but the book was probably just still too fresh in my mind for me to get into the TV series. I kept noticing the differences between the two, and that got in the way of following the story.
And the key to the story’s intrigue is the mystery at the heart of the book. We’re given fragments of the story through the eyes of different characters, and a big part of the pleasure of reading this book is the satisfaction of making sense of the events, piece by piece. When I reached the end, although it felt like everything had come together, I still couldn’t quite grasp the complexity of it all, and I wanted to turn straight back to page one and start again. That’s probably one of the highest compliments you can pay to a book. (The TV series, in contrast, chose to open the story chronologically, which failed to grip me in the same way.)
What I loved the most about The Luminaries was its size and scope, as well as the language. Reading The Luminaries reminded me of the experience of losing myself in thick Charlotte Brontë and Thomas Hardy novels as a teenager. I didn’t want those books to end, and would dread the feeling of pages running out, and that experience was repeated with The Luminaries: I lost myself in 1980s Hokitika, I craved to be back in that world when I wasn’t reading, and I didn’t want the book to come to an end. I wanted to continue living in its world.
If I stop thinking about how much I want to move into the book, and look at The Luminaries as a writer, it’s immediately clear that it breaks many of the “rules” of writing. Its storytelling is long-winded, it pauses the story to describe the appearance, personality and background of each newly introduced character, and it sometimes talks directly to the reader – without it being clear who is addressing the reader (I think it’s probably the author, though I could be wrong). It doesn’t even open with a sympathetic main character that the reader is invited to get to know and care about. Instead, we step into Hokitika, fresh off a boat, with Walter Moody, who turns out to play only a minor role in the story. With him, we meet more than a dozen characters, before figuring out which of them are really at the centre of the plot – and some of those central characters spend very little time in the limelight (I’m looking at you, Emery Staines).
But imagine The Luminaries told any other way. Imagine it written in a more modern, less epic style – would it be able to transport its readers back in time in the same way? Imagine the story told from the perspective of Anna Wetherell – would the mystery hold its intrigue? I don’t think so.
For a writer, The Luminaries is the perfect illustration of how to break the rules of writing to create an impact. The key is to first understand the rules, so you know exactly what greatness you can achieve by breaking them.