And then there's Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, a book with more than its fair share of plot, "a gothic cathedral of plot!" At 800+ pages, maybe plot, erected on such a intricately designed scale with flying buttresses and gargoyles and stained glass, is necessity more than extravagance.
The Luminaries has been on my shelf for some time, sitting there like a door stop screaming "commitment." Then last month I was looking for a new read, something dense and hearty that might also help me break my online habit, and there was The Luminaries waving its hands, calling out: "pick me!"
January seems tailor-made for mammoth reads. This is when - if you live in the northern hemisphere, at least - you want to crack open Middlemarch or The Children's Book, Middlesex or the complete Harry Potter. Cuddle up by the fire, tuck in to something substantial, and try to tune out the internet's siren song.
The Luminaries is set in gold-rush 19th-century New Zealand. A dead man is found in a cabin. A prostitute lies collapsed on the road. The richest man in town has gone missing. And on a night of torrential rain, a council of twelve convene a secret meeting. What is the thread that binds these things together? Eight hundred and thirty two pages later, you find out.
Catton adopts the 19th century Gothic as her style. Her narrator is all-knowing and arch, moving freely in and out of different characters' points of view. Everything is explained and very little is submerged. There are cliff hangers galore. In the role of the villain: an enigmatic man with a scar. It's the kind of page-turner that might have been written by a 21st century Wilkie Collins. All the suspense and classic story-telling of an earlier age with modern-day good sense (which is to say you find any simpering Angels in the House).
But perhaps this all sounds hopelessly outmoded. Haven't we moved beyond conventional plot and story-telling, evolved past the need for narratorial hand-holding? This reader has not! I found The Luminaries completely refreshing.
And make no mistake, Catton's characters are well-drawn and complex with flawed motives and inconsistent, deeply human, actions. Her scene-setting is on point. Themes of land appropriation and colonial entitlement, racism and inequality are handled with intelligence and empathy. Agency is found in unexpected places. (At one point a villain casts aspersions on the local prostitute, only to be reminded that as many men bare him a grudge, there are twice as many who love and would protect her.)
The Luminaries - which won a slew of prizes including the Man-Booker and the Governor General's - is immersive and sustaining. After a while I forgot the internet existed.