Victorian Post Modernism: Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Winner The Luminaries

Photo of Thomas Storey
4 January 2017

A Victorian pastiche wrapped within a postmodern framework which stretches to over 800 pages, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is nothing if not ambitious. But Catton’s ambition has been richly rewarded, winning the coveted Man Booker Prize for 2013.

In winning the Man Booker Prize Catton has remarkably broken two records: she is both the youngest ever Man Booker winner, and her book is the longest ever to win. Robert Macfarlane, Chair of judges for the 2013 Man Booker Prize said of The Luminaries that it is ‘a book you sometimes feel lost in, fearing it to be ‘a big baggy monster…but it turns out to be as tightly structured as an orrery’. This duality between the seemingly loose and capacious narrative, which at first threatens to stretch out until it encompasses all of New Zealand, and the actual structure which slowly emerges out of this nebulous material, is what makes it so compelling. For Catton has utilized the historical novel genre (previously done to perfection by Booker luminary Hilary Mantel) as the basis for a novel which interrogates our own notions of storytelling, history and the vagaries of personal or national memory. In doing so she transcends a turgid re-imagining of the historical record and creates a work which questions what we can know of the past at all, and whether our certainty about our own history is at all valid.

The Luminaries begins in 19th century New Zealand during the time of its gold rush, when the prospect of winning a fortune attracted all manner of characters to the beautiful wilderness of the south western coast. Catton sets her tale in the town of Hokitika, and populates this world with a variety of strange and bewildering figures, all of whom have washed up on this far flung shore for their own reasons. Catton’s attention to detail places this novel firmly in the Victorian milieu, as frock coats and mackintoshes battle for attention with tailcoats and corsets. Her generosity with plot and character also initially evokes the epic Victorian works of realist fiction which the 19th century was famous for. These Victorian trappings are however undercut by the feeling of distance from something which could be construed as a centre, as the character’s geographic and cultural location on the distant reaches of empire correspond to a sense of lawlessness and alienation. This is emphasized further by the Wild West atmosphere which clashes so harshly with Victorian propriety.

© Granta Books

However this conflict of values is not what defines the novel, and in fact it eventually fades into the background, as the narrative framework spins on its axis. The novel follows a rigid organizing principle which at first seems arbitrary and artificial; every chapter starts with an astrological chart which reveals the heavenly body each character is associated with and these characters then act in accordance with these heavenly bodies. Similarly the novel’s 12 parts gradually reduce in length so that each section is half the length of the previous one, thus waning like the moon. This organizing principle hints at the central theme of the novel, which is that characters who at first seem like the masters of their fates, are in fact trapped in a predetermined existence, in which their fate has been decided by the guiding hand of the novelist. This meta fictional intrusion becomes more apparent as the plot details fade into obscurity, and the staginess of their initial introduction becomes ever clearer. Catton’s ‘unwriting’ of the Victorian page turner which the book originally promised to become, sees an eventual hollowing out of the diegetic world which then crumbles into insignificance. She thus pulls the rug out from under the reader, but not in the dislocating or alienating way of much post-modernist literature, but in a way which forces the reader to question their own assumptions and presuppositions, formed during their early reading of the novel.

This cerebral, endlessly surprising novel is a worthy winner of the Man Booker, and though it may win headlines for its length and the age of its author, it is more notable for its intelligence and its ability to engage with philosophical themes, which mark it out amongst recent Booker winners far more than its doorstop proportions, or its author’s relative youth.