Stars: 3 & ½
2013 Booker Prize
Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’ is a multi-faceted dazzler – historical fiction; mystery; whimsical romance; and with a touch of the paranormal thrown in for some extra effect. Yet this olio somehow works without any clumsiness.
The story is set in 19th. century New Zealand. Walter Moody, newly arrived from England, comes to the west coast town of Hokitika with an intention to try his luck in its goldfields. But his entrance coincides with recent events that have upturned the little town: Emery Staines, Hokitika’s wealthiest man, is missing and presumed dead; Anna Wetherell, a favorite town prostitute; appears to have made an unsuccessful attempt to take her own life; Crosbie Wells, a local hermit, has died under mysterious circumstances; and, Alistair Lauderback, an ambitious politician, is being blackmailed. What this quartet has in common is their mutual acquaintance with the sinister Francis Carver, and his accomplice, the equally devious Lydia Greenway.
Twelve concerned citizens of Hokitika share the information they possess with Moody; determined to find justice for the victims and absolve themselves of any role they might have unwittingly played in the tragic events.
While Ms. Catton employs a slightly modified (thank God!) version of the Victorian style of expression, the most striking aspect of this novel is in its elaborate organization of character and apportioning of timeline according to astrological principles. If you have ever dabbled in the zodiac, this book will probably offer you an extra element of enjoyment. If that’s really not your thing, the character chart may seem superfluous and the titles won’t make much sense. But the book still will; so don’t worry about it.
The bare skeleton of the plot is simple enough. The intricacy lies in how deftly the actions and their consequences are interlaced. The author retains her audience’s interests by switching between past and present; revealing only tantalizing glimpses of the plot at a time; and from multiple perspectives to boot. At 800 plus pages, this is the longest book to have ever won a Booker prize. And yet despite its voluminous might, any reader who expects events to be neatly resolved and the tale to come to a tidy finish will be disappointed. Yes, justice (both the poetic and legal kind) is served, but much is left to our inference. The answers are there; but you should have been paying attention. Or just read it all over again. Go ahead, I dare you.