The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publishers. It will be published 15 October 2013.

17333230I was drawn to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries because it’s set in a place I’ve never been, fictionally-speaking. It’s set in the mid-1860s on New Zealand’s South Island during the gold rushes. It’s a long book at 800 pages and the cast of characters is sprawling. Even though it will be a challenge, I recommend to anyone thinking of reading this book that you do so in the longest stretches you can manage. There’s a lot to remember here–motivations, histories, and plots. When you leave off for the night (or to go to work or eat or whatever it is people do when they’re not reading), it can be hard to pick up the threads of the book again.

The book opens about two weeks after a miner turned logger is found dead in his cabin of apparently natural causes and a prostitute near death is picked up on the road into the town of Hokitika. Twelve men have gathered to try to piece together the mystery of how that miner died, why £4000 of gold was found in his cabin, why gold was found in the prostitute’s dress, where a politician’s missing steamer trunk went, and find the truth behind what could either be a series of disparate coincidences or a vast conspiracy. The twelve are interrupted by a thirteenth, a lawyer turned miner named Walter Moody who has just come in on the latest boat to Hokitika.

Hokitika, New Zealand, in the 1870s. Via WikiCommons.

It takes Catton half the book (according to the counter in my kindle app) for all the known facts to come out as the twelve share their information. As they tell their story, Catton interweaves the present as the conspiracy and coincidences continue. Potential blackmailers arrive in Hokitika, one of whom claims to be the dead miner’s widow with rights to the found fortune. The bank and twe he court start their own investigations.

Little by little, the puzzle pieces start to fall into place. Like the characters in the book, who are on the periphery of what really happened, I felt like a person assembling a puzzle from the edges in. There was something in the middle, but I wasn’t sure what it was. Was it just a tangle of misadventures? Was there a criminal mastermind behind it all, planning a dozen steps ahead? The Luminaries demands careful, slow reading and a good memory. And even Sherlock Holmes would have to smoke several pipes to get to the bottom of this one.

Is it worth reading 800 pages to find out what happens? I think this book isn’t for everyone. It’s gracefully written. I loved the way the author was able to write in an ever narrowing spiral that looped around from past to present and back again while revealing a little more of the core story. (But I would hate to play poker with Catton.) Just for sheer craft, this book is incredible. However, I think some people will get frustrated with this book. Even though it’s cleanly written, the events in the book and their outcomes are anything but clean and tidy. If you like your historical fiction messy and true to life, The Luminaries will be an intriguing read.

One thought on “The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

  1. The format and the chapter headings remind one of the 19th century authors like Dickens and Trollope and the way it is written gives the same impression.It is a good story in a great setting. The author conveys the atmosphere of the New Zealand gold rush in the 1860s brilliantly, contriving to tell the tale in the speech and idiom used at the time. A great read.


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