The Guardian has an interview with Eleanor Catton who won the Booker Prize yesterday. Here’s the precis of her book:
The novel has an entirely original organising principle: each chapter is preceded by an astrological chart and each character is associated with a heavenly body; the characters act in accordance with the actual movements of the cosmos as they were, starting on 27 January 1866. At the same time, the novel is organised in 12 parts, each half the length of the previous one – thus the novel itself wanes.
Every review I’ve read dwells on the astrological charts and the book’s odd structure, and that’s understandable because it is kind of odd – but its also not something you notice when you’re reading The Luminaries, at least until you get to the very end of the book when the chapter lengths are very short. It also makes Catton’s book sound very experimental, and the constant references to the size of the book make it sound very daunting and dense. But it isn’t. To me Wolf Hall seemed a lot longer than The Luminaries (possibly because there’s a lot of dialog in Catton’s book, and that makes for quick reading).
Anyway, all this talk about the mathematical structure and vast size of the book and how avant-garde it is misses the point: that The Luminaries is primarily a very entertaining crime novel. It’s amazingly well written (which is one of the reasons it just won the world’s most prestigious literary award and not some crime-writing award) but it is, basically a mystery novel about stolen gold and drug-addicted whores and evil scar-faced ship captains. It’s written in the style of a Victorian novel but I suspect that two of the biggest influences were the golden age HBO shows Deadwood and The Wire. Deadwood because of the frontier goldrush town setting, obviously, and The Wire because Catton is interested in using crime stories to examine how the society she’s writing about really works in terms of power-relationships and influence.