The Luminaries

20 May 2014
Written by Diana Kenny
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Reviewing The Luminaries, Diana discovers a brilliantly clever gold-rush boom and bust mystery/ghost story set against the backdrop of small-town New Zealand

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize for literature

So, I’m attempting the BIG ONE, the star of the New Zealand literary world and the subject of a lot of discussion; hence I must make my stand clear from the beginning – I loved the book.

My first attempt at reading it was a disaster - too short a period of getting into it and constant referring back to the characters list. Next time I started from the beginning again and had most of a wet miserable day to give the book justice. This worked and I have given the same advice to others about to read it – give it a really good shot at the beginning and get as far into it as you can.  My original words were to read the first chapter, but that is about half the book, so go as far as you can.

I read it straight on, as a historical mystery narrative, peopled by interesting characters with interwoven stories. It is a good old-fashioned yarn, in the manner of Dickens with well-drawn characters that spin off each other then back again into the central melee. Everyone has their own story and no one is giving away too much.

I read later that Catton employed the Golden Spiral to structure the book; an analogy would be a sea shell, wide at the perimeter but honing down to a sharp point. The first part is extremely long - 358 pages - and the last, two pages. The characters, 20 in total, circle around each other at the beginning but during the telling become fewer and sharper in detail. All this is not even to mention the solar system at play with the number of characters, 12 as astrological entities, seven as the known planets of the 1860s and the dead man, Crosbie Wells, Terra Firma - Earth, as the centre of all this commotion.

Also time is circular, we go forwards, backwards, into the future, there is no natural distinction yet it is all so connected that there is only time.

All of the above I discovered after I had finished the book and did some research. How she managed to juggle all of the constraints of mathematical order, storyline, astrology, historical facts, characters, not forgetting the gold, I don’t know and I can only salute her as a true story-teller.

As I said, I read it as an interesting and gripping novel, an old-fashioned Victorian-style adventure. It has all the parts - murder, intrigue, gold mining, the good-hearted prostitute, Chinese indenture workers, opium, a scar-faced baddie and a mysterious wife.  

Set mainly in Hokitika, on New Zealand’s west coast, the novel opens with the arrival of Walter Moody after a hazardous sea voyage and his blundering into a meeting being held in his hotel. Gradually as all tell their tales he realises the importance of the story he has to tell. This comprises the first part of the book with a resume at the end, very handy for summarising all the known facts. The questions left are who killed the recluse? What happened to the newly rich, popular young man? Did the prostitute attempt suicide? Who is the enigmatic wife? And the gold - who owns the gold? How the author treats the gold is something I found very entertaining and a laugh-out loud moment when I realised the true provenance of it.

A great book in my opinion and I am pleased to see that Catton, although born in Canada, has a Kiwi dad and is a product of our education system. It is enough to give me faith in it.


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