THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton

Book Quote:

“But there is no truth except truth in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating never still…We now look outward…we see the world as we wish to perfect it, and we imagine dwelling there.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (NOV 17, 2013)

Twelve men meet at the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, New Zealand, in January, 1866. A thirteenth, Walter Moody, an educated man from Edinburgh who has come here to find his fortune in gold, walks in. As it unfolds, the interlocking stories and shifting narrative perspectives of the twelve–now thirteen–men bring forth a mystery that all are trying to solve, including Walter Moody, who has just gotten off the Godspeed ship with secrets of his own that intertwine with the other men’s concerns.

This is not an important book. There is no magnificent theme, no moral thicket, no people to emancipate, no countries to defend, no subtext to unravel, and no sizable payoff. Its weightiness is physical, coming in at 832 pages. And yet, it is one of the most marvelous and poised books that I have read. Although I didn’t care for the meandering rambling books of Wilkie Collins, I am reminded here of his style, but Catton is so much more controlled, and possesses the modern day perspective in which to peer back.

I felt a warmth and a shiver at each passing chapter, set during the last days of the New Zealand gold rush. Catton hooked me in in this Victorian tale of a piratical captain; a Maori gemstone hunter; Chinese diggers (or “hatters”); the search for “colour” (gold); a cache of hidden gold; séances; opium; fraud; ruthless betrayal; infidelity; a politician; a prostitute; a Jewish newspaperman; a gaoler; shipping news; shady finance; a ghostly presence; a missing man; a dead man; and a spirited romance. And there’s more between Dunedin and Hokitika to titillate the adventurous reader.

Primarily, The Luminaries is an action-adventure, sprawling detective story, superbly plotted, where the Crown Hotel men try to solve it, while sharing secrets and shame of their own. There’s even a keen courtroom segment later in the story. And, there are crucial characters that are not gathered in the Crown that night who link everyone together. The prostitute and opium addict, Anna Wetherell, is nigh the center of this story, as she is coveted or loved or desired by all the townspeople.

The layout of the book is stellar: the spheres of the skies and its astrological charts. You don’t need to understand the principles and mathematics of astrology (I don’t), but it is evident that knowledge of this pseudoscience would add texture to the reading experience, as it provides the structure and frame of the book. The characters’ traits can be found in their individual sun signs (such as the duality of a Germini). The drawings of charts add to the mood, and the chapters get successively shorter after the long Crown chapter. The cover of the book illustrates the phases of the moon, from full moon to sliver, alluding to the waning narrative lengths as the story progresses.

“But onward also rolls the outer sphere–the boundless present, which contains the bounded past.”

Take note of the cast list at the beginning, which is quite helpful for the initial 200 or 300 pages. With so many vivid characters coming at you at once, it is difficult at first to absorb. However, as the pages sail (and they will, if this appeals to you), you won’t even need the names and professions. The story and its striking, almost theatrical players become gradually and permanently installed, thoroughly and unforgettably. From the scar on Captain Francis Carver’s cheek, to the widow’s garment on Anna Wetherell’s gaunt frame, the lively images and descriptions animate this boisterous, vibrant story.

Catton is a master storyteller; she combines this exacting 19th century style and narrator–and the “we” that embraces the reader inside the tale–with the faintest sly wink of contemporary perspective. Instead of the authorial voice sounding campy, stilted, and antiquated, there is a fresh whiff of nuanced canniness, a knowing Catton who uncorks the delectable Victorian past by looking at it from the postmodern future.

You will either be intoxicated by this big brawl of a book, or weighed down in its heft. If you are looking for something more than it is, then look no further than the art of reading. There’s no mystery to the men; Catton lays out their morals, scruples, weaknesses, and strengths at the outset. The women had a little poetic mystery to them, but in all, these were familiar players–she drew up stock 19th century characters, but livened them up, so that they leaped madly from the pages. There isn’t much to interrogate except your own anticipation. If you’ve read Colour, by Rose Tremain, don’t expect any similarities except the time, place, setting, and the sweat and grime of the diggers. Otherwise, the two books are alike as fish and feathers.

The stars shine bright as torches, or are veiled behind a mist, like the townspeople and story that behave under the various constellations. Catton’s impeccably plotted yarn invites us to dwell in this time and place. At times, I felt I mined the grand nuggets of the story, and at other times, it blew away like dust.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 230 readers
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company; First Edition edition (October 15, 2013)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Eleanor Catton
EXTRAS:
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another big book set in New Zealand:

Bibliography:


December 17, 2013 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2013 Favorites, 2013 Man Booker Shortlist, Man Booker Prize, New Zealand, y Award Winning Author

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