What were the Booker Prize judges thinking? A hundred and fifty-one books were submitted for the prize this year; somewhere among that vast array of novels there must, surely, have been one that could have beaten this unenthralling whodunnit to the award. Maybe it was simply that, having trudged through all 836 pages of The Luminaries, they couldn’t bear to admit that such an exhausting journey had been in vain. But hundreds of pages doesn’t transform a mediocre novel into an epic — it just leaves you with an awfully large amount of mediocrity.
It’s frustrating, because Eleanor Catton begins her novel so well. It’s 1866 and Walter Moody, a young man hoping to make his fortune, has just arrived in a small frontier town during the New Zealand gold rush. Encountering a strikingly disparate group of men gathered in the hotel smoking room — including a legal clerk, a whoremonger, a Chinese opium dealer and a heavily tattooed Maori — he quickly discovers that this motley crew has come together to try to make sense of a series of unexplained events.
One man has been found dead beside a vast fortune of solid gold, another man is missing and the town’s favourite whore seems to somehow be at the heart of it. Like the start of a good Agatha Christie, it all seems very intriguing.
But while the godmother of crime writing knew how to lure you in, hold you gripped and leave you satisfied all within a modest average of 300 pages, Catton has assembled everything she needs to construct a tight, captivating mystery novel and then bewilderingly ballooned it into a book so big that the characters have to keep giving each other mini plot summaries along the way, because even they are in danger of getting lost among the avalanche of narrative jigsaw pieces.
If all of these pieces fitted together to create the greatest and most intricate puzzle ever seen, the effort might, perhaps, have been worth it. But this whodunnit is no more intriguing than the pacier, reasonable-size variety and Catton’s readers are more likely to continue turning the pages in an attempt to see what all the Booker Prize fuss is about, than out of any desperate desire to know what happens next.
Presumably Catton’s defenders would argue that it hardly matters that the mystery is hopelessly cluttered and not all that mysterious. This, they would argue, is a new literary classic that cleverly plays with the expectations of the detective genre — as with all great pieces of literature, what really counts is not what happens but the brilliant character studies you get along the way.
The trouble is that these studies just aren’t that brilliant. Catton introduces a large cast and gives each one his turn in the limelight, yet she never manages to make you really care about the fate of any of them.
It often feels as if she is merely showing you scenes rather than allowing you fully to inhabit the characters and feel their pain and fears. The sense of distance isn’t helped by the smugly superior voice of her omniscient narrator, who makes asides in a conspiratorial “we” and often seems to be laughing at the characters’ confusion.
It is only towards the very end of the novel, when we flash back to the dramatic events which serve as a catalyst for everything that follows, that Catton creates moments of real terror and pathos. But by this point proof of her ability to create emotionally gripping scenes is merely exasperating — where did it go for the previous 700 pages?
Holding the book together is an astrological framework, with each chapter named after a particular planetary position and the events loosely dictated by whatever the Sun in Jupiter or the Moon in Taurus is meant to foretell.
Catton explained in a recent interview that she was interested in exploring the idea of predetermination, but also just wanted to have “the pleasure of having a complex structure to fiddle and play with”. The result is just as pointlessly self-indulgent as that pronouncement sounds — her astrological asides never seem to serve any greater purpose than to remind you how clever the author is meant to be.
“There is no truth exect truth 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,” the narrator grandly declares.
It sounds pretty, but sadly the book remains just that — a clockwork orchestration of characters that Catton has painstakingly put together but failed to bring to life. If you want to lose yourself in a book you can use as a doorstop, Tolstoy’s your man; if you want a good mystery, stick to Poirot.