At 848 pages, The Luminaries is the longest book I've ever read. And possibly the most complicated besides. There is a large cast of central playersnineteen live ones, one deadas well as additional supporting characters, each one contributing a crucial part to this lively and entertaining story, a mystery charged with all the deadly sins; most particularly greed and lust. Storylines are not always told in a linear fashion; we shift back and forth in time. With exquisite prose, Eleanor Catton weaves together many individual stories to paint a rich picture at a pivotal moment in history.
It is January 1866 in Hokitika, New Zealanda newly booming gold-mining townwhen Walter Moody, an upper-class, twenty-eight year old Englishman, steps into the smoking room of the Crown Hotel. He has just arrived in town after a harrowing journey aboard the vessel Goodspeed, sailed by Captain Francis Carver. For the moment, Moody is looking for nothing more than "a brandy, and a place to sit and close his eyes." However, he has stumbled onto a secret meeting between twelve of the town's most influential men: a shipping agent, banker, hotelier, newspaper man, chemist, merchant, justice's clerk, goldsmith, hatter turned opium dealer, jade hunter, chaplain, and gold magnate, have met to share information regarding a local mystery. Two are Chinese, one is a Maori native, and all of them are "bronzed and weathered in the manner of all frontiersmen." If they each share their knowledge, it seems that they may be able to determine a connection between several unsolved crimes.
Two weeks prior, a wealthy young gold miner, Emery Staines, went missing. On the same night, Anna Wetherell, a favorite prostitute with an opium habit almost overdosed; and a relative unknown, Crosbie Wells, is found deadleaving behind a bottle of laudanum under his bed and a fortune of gold from unknown origin. It seems that Captain Francis Carver and Crosbie Wells's widow, Lydia Carveraka Lydia Greenwayare somehow integral to each mystery. And it turns out that even Moody has information that may help to make the situation clearer.
We get to know each man, and to a lesser degree the women, Anna and Lydiathrough the rich and specific details of their lives, as well as their interactions with one another prior to this meeting. It soon becomes clear that first appearances are deceptive and that no one is aware exactly how he or she is perceived by the others. The multiple viewpoints work surprisingly well to reveal the intricacies of relationships and the interconnectedness of separate individuals.
Both the characters and the plot are complex and complicated. At times I felt as though I was working with a puzzle, trying to fit together pieces I wasn't sure were from the same box. So, as answers to questions were revealed, it was immensely satisfying to see the way each piece was truly significant. However, when Catton presents a summary of events at the almost mid-way point, I must say I felt a little cheated after working so hard to keep the various characters straightbut relieved, too, to have a chance to put it all together before launching into the second half of this ambitious novel. As the various elements begin to fit together, the result is satisfying, even thrilling.
This is a book for a patient reader one who is willing to savor the small moments and precise painting of a town and the characters living within its boundaries. With the meticulous attention given to detail, it is as though Catton is building a place and populating it too. Yet, although the people and scenes are richly drawn and easy to imagine, the first half of this novel moves so slowly one cannot help but be aware of the author setting the stage. She is present as the all-knowing narrator, rather than fading into the background of the fictive dream. The pace picks up in the second half, and the sections are shorter, making for a much faster read. The reader is rewarded for earlier efforts.
The story is framed based on astrological concepts. Each character is given a rolestellar or planetaryand his or her related influence is specified in a "Character Chart" provided at the beginning. Each chapter starts by outlining astrological positions. It opens with "Mercury in Sagittarius" moving on to "Jupiter in Sagittarius" and so on. With the great cast of characters and complicated twisting and spiraling plot and mysteries, I didn't find these astrological references added anything to my understanding or enjoyment of the novel. Perhaps if I had a better understanding of astrology I would have appreciated the parallels more. Although my lack of knowledge did not impede my enjoyment of the novel, I felt as though these flourishes simply called attention to the author and her cleverness.
In addition to the marvelous character sketches and mind-boggling plot, the setting is fascinating. As a Californian, I was fully aware of the California gold rush of 1849, but had no idea a parallel event was taking place on the other side of the world. I find the ways that the discovery of gold changes a landscape and the people inhabiting that place, quite illuminating. Gold-mining leads to what Thomas Balfour, the shipping agent in this novel, calls "reverse alchemy the transformationnot into gold, but out of it." Occupations and fortunes change. Class has no meaning in this rough and rugged world. "A goldfield was a place of muck and hazard where a grocer's cradle might be thick with color, and lawyer's cradle might run dry; where there were no divisions."
One may have to work a little harder in reading The Luminaries, but the effort will provide a satisfying payoff.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize . Catton adds distinction to her award as the youngest person to receive this award and her book is the longest ever chosen for such recognition.
This review was originally published in October 2013, and has been updated for the October 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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