Book Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (McClelland & Stewart, 2013)

My main problem with The Luminaries was that it was too big. Not too long – I definitely could have read more from Catton. The book is over 800 pages and in hardcover it was just too large for me to hold with one hand. And since I do much of my reading these days while holding a baby, I wasn’t able to get through the novel as fast as I wanted to.

Seriously though, I enjoyed this book a lot. As with any book of this size there are definitely parts that could be edited down or reduced. However this is a well and thoughtfully-crafted novel. Catton fits a lot in and the form and pace of the novel is superbly done.

Set in the mid-19th century in a gold mining town in New Zealand (Who knew New Zealand had a gold rush? Not me and not anyone I mentioned it to.) the story opens on the day Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika. He unwittingly stumbles across a council of twelve unlikely men, meeting in secret to discuss recent events. A hermit has been found dead, his house filled with stashed gold. The town’s richest man has disappeared. A prostitute has apparently attempted suicide in the road. All in one day.

The twelve men lay out their tales to Moody, who has his own strange experience en route to Hokitika to add to the mystery. The first section of the novel outlines how these twelve came to meet together and steadily unfolds all the strange elements of this story and how a hermit, a rich man, and a prostitute might be connected. From there we move forward in time in the next couple of sections and then back to the previous year.

The story is complex and sometimes confusing. There is a hoard of gold that changes hands so many times through so many various means that I really had to concentrate to make sure I understand the plot. However, the characters are clear and unique, well-drawn and fascinating. Catton does well at introducing them in the first section and letting the reader see their various biases and influences. Each man is connected and implicated somehow and while this adds to the complexity it also makes the story all the more fascinating and the tension greater.

Some of the most interesting stories belong to two Chinese characters, Ah Quee and Ah Sook. While life in Hokitika and New Zealand at this time is hard and dirty and often degrading, this is most seen for these two men. Their stories are truly heart-breaking and a harsh reminder of racist attitudes held around the world in history. By contrast, the female characters are weaker. There are only two (and fair enough, this would not have been a welcoming place for most women) and they each fall into stereotypes in their own way, despite both being very important characters and each at the crux of the mystery.

The part of the novel that missed the mark for me was the astrological structure of it. Granted, I know nothing of astrology so the outlines and references to charts and signs was meaningless but it also never seemed to be explained within the context of the story. Towards the end, there is some suggestion of a more powerful and spiritual answer to some of the unanswered questions. There are tantalizing hints given that greater forces may be at work but this feels like something the author tiptoes to the edge of. By neither staying completely in the realm of realism or diving fully into the realm of the mystical, Catton weakens the solution she does provide and ended up frustrating this reader.

All in all though, a truly excellent novel.

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