Excerpt from The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Luminaries

A Novel

by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2013, 848 pages
    Oct 2014, 864 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp

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It was true that his mental conception of the New Zealand diggings was extremely imprecise, informed chiefly by sketches of the California goldfields—log cabins, flat-bottomed valleys, wagons in the dust—and a dim sense (he did not know from where) that the colony was somehow the shadow of the British Isles, the unformed, savage obverse of the Empire's seat and heart. He had been surprised, upon rounding the heads of the Otago peninsula some two weeks prior, to see mansions on the hill, quays, streets, and plotted gardens—and he was surprised, now, to observe a well-dressed gentleman passing his lucifers to a Chinaman, and then leaning across him to retrieve his glass.

Moody was a Cambridge fellow, born in Edinburgh to a modest fortune and a household staff of three. The social circles in which he had tended to move, at Trinity, and then at Inner Temple in his more recent years, had not at all the rigid aspect of the peerage, where one's history and context differed from the next man only in degree; nevertheless, his education had made him insular, for it had taught him that the proper way to understand any social system was to view it from above. With his college chums (dressed in capes, and drunk on Rhenish wine) he would defend the merging of the classes with all the agony and vitality of the young, but he was always startled whenever he encountered it in practice. He did not yet know that a goldfield was a place of muck and hazard, where every fellow was foreign to the next man, and foreign to the soil; where a grocer's cradle might be thick with color, and a lawyer's cradle might run dry; where there were no divisions. Moody was some twenty years Balfour's junior, and so he spoke with deference, but he was conscious that Balfour was a man of lower standing than himself, and he was conscious also of the strange miscellany of persons around him, whose estates and origins he had not the means to guess. His politeness therefore had a slightly wooden quality, as a man who does not often speak with children lacks any measure for what is appropriate, and so holds himself apart, and is rigid, however much he wishes to be kind.

Thomas Balfour felt this condescension, and was delighted. He had a playful distaste for men who spoke, as he phrased it, "much too well," and he loved to provoke them—not to anger, which bored him, but to vulgarity. He regarded Moody's stiffness as if it were a fashionable collar, made in some aristocratic style, that was unbearably confining to the wearer—he saw all conventions of polite society in this way, as useless ornamentations—and it amused him, that the man's refinement caused him to be so ill at ease.

Balfour was indeed a man of humble standing, as Moody had guessed. His father had worked in a saddlery in Kent, and he might have taken up that mantle, if a fire had not claimed both father and stable in his eleventh year—but he was a restless boy, with frayed cuffs and an impatience that belied the dreamy, half-focused expression he habitually wore, and the dogged work would not have suited him. In any case, a horse could not keep pace with a railway car, as he was fond of saying, and the trade had not weathered the rush of changing times. Balfour liked very much to feel that he was at the vanguard of an era. When he spoke of the past, it was as if each decade prior to the present year was an ill-made candle that had been burned and spent. He felt no nostalgia for the stuff of his boyhood life—the dark liquor of the tanning vats, the rack of hides, the calfskin pouch where his father stored his needles and his awl—and rarely recalled it, except to draw a comparison with newer industries. Ore: that was where the money lay. Coalmines, steelworks, and gold.

He began in glass. After several years as an apprentice he founded a glassworks of his own, a modest factory he later sold for a share in a coalmine, which in due course was expanded to a network of shaft mines, and sold to investors in London for a grand sum. He did not marry. On his thirtieth birthday he bought a one-way ticket on a clipper ship bound for Veracruz, the first leg of a nine-month journey that would take him overland to the Californian goldfields. The luster of the digger's life soon paled for him, but the ceaseless rush and hope of the fields did not; with his first dust he bought shares in a bank, built three hotels in four years, and prospered. When California dried he sold up and sailed for Victoria—a new strike, a new uncharted land—and thence, hearing once again the call that carried across the ocean like a faery pipe on a rare breeze, to New Zealand.

Excerpted from The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Copyright © 2013 by Eleanor Catton. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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