There is no truth except in relation

The Luminaries

The Luminaries
by Eleanor Catton

I’m a bit bemused why this won the Booker Prize. It’s not by any means a bad book, but less than a week after finishing it I’m finding it’s not really stayed with me, and nothing about it felt particularly standout. Except perhaps its size. That’s pretty noticeable.

This is a historical mystery novel with a broad cast of characters (and you know there’s a lot of people to keep track of when a book begins with a character list) who inhabit the New Zealand coastal town of Hokitika during the 1860s. The story opens with the arrival of Mr Walter Moody, come to make his fortune on the nearby goldfields. On his first night in town he stumbles on a secret meeting of 12 men who are trying to get to the bottom of a series of mysterious events that occurred two weeks previously: a prostitute attempted suicide (or did she?), a wealthy (and well-liked) man vanished and a drunken hermit was found dead with a fortune hidden in his home. Moody finds that by chance he has some information that may be pertinent to the gathered men, so they all tell their stories in turn. Or rather their snippets of the same story, because it becomes clear that they are each part of a large jigsaw puzzle that must be reassembled.

“Unconfirmed suspicion tends, over time, to become wilful, fallacious, and prey to the vicissitudes of mood – it acquires all the qualities of common superstition – and the men of the Crown Hotel, whose nexus of allegiance is stitched, after all, in the bright thread of time and motion, have, like all men, no immunity to influence.”

That’s part one, which is 360 pages long – partly because every new character is described in great detail, or at least their physical appearance and temperament are. But that length also comes from the same story effectively being told multiple times from different perspectives, with different details added or assumptions made that are later proved wrong. It’s an interesting way to tell a story, if sometimes confusing, and I think I was a little disappointed that the rest of the novel didn’t follow quite the same style.

From part two the story moves more conventionally forward and then eventually backward in time, much like a detective novel, following the characters trying to unravel the mysteries and then going back to reveal what actually happened. It’s no surprise that all of the odd events are linked together, but figuring out how and why is genuinely intriguing and enjoyable enough to keep me reading without feeling burdened by the book’s 832 pages (except for the occasional sore arm from holding all that size and weight – this is definitely a good argument for the e-book).

“[This] only showed, Moody thought, that a man ought never to trust another man’s evaluation of a third man’s disposition. For human temperament was a volatile compound of perception and circumstance.”

So if it wasn’t the book’s size or the plot that left me unsatisfied, what was it? One thing is that I didn’t really get the book’s main narrative device – the plural narrative voice (as in, the story is told by “we”, not that different narrators take turns). I wasn’t sure who these voices were supposed to be, though I did get a sense they were somehow linked to star signs and astrology, which also pop up at the start of each section. It’s a shame because I quite like the idea of a chorus, like in an old play, but it just didn’t quite work for me. Possibly because I was put off by the astrology references. This is a personal prejudice, but I did think that the astrology didn’t strongly relate to the rest of the story and felt out of place. (It does actually come up as a plot point that’s probably meant to be really important, but I felt could easily have been dropped without affecting the rest of the story at all, so that’s not really key at all, is it?)

“When we looked upon Man, we sought to fix him: we mourned his failures and measured his gifts…But there is no truth except in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating, never still. We are no longer sheltered in a cloistered reminiscence of the past. We now look outward, through the phantasm of our own convictions.”

I did like the little summary at the start of each chapter, which reminded me a lot of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, including the tongue-in-cheek sense of humour with which they are written. And I liked the variety of people, both in terms of nationalities and personalities. But that very plurality also meant that there was no psychological insight into any people or events. It’s a personal preference, I know, but I like to get under someone’s skin in my reading, rather than be held at arm’s length.

Have you read this? What did you think of it?

Published 2013 by Granta.
Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

2 thoughts on “There is no truth except in relation

  1. Susan May 23, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    The size of it — makes me not want to go there. Not sure it’s enthralling enough. Hmm

  2. Kate Gardner May 25, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    Susan It was readable enough but I’d understand if you wanted to devote that chunk of time to something else.

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