Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Photo Credit: Little, Brown & Co.

4 out of 5 dazzling stars

I see why it won ALL THE AWARDS even though it pissed me off at the end.

Where to even begin. I have never read anything like this. First: set in New Zealand. Second: a goldrush story not set in America. Third: a New Zealand gold rush historical… ok, so that’s really only two things. The actual third: a plot so incredibly complicated and convoluted but yet I managed to keep a hold of all the threads…. kinda sorta. Pretty much.

But where to begin? I guess I’ll start at the beginning, though the first character brought to our notice hasn’t got much to do with the story until the 3/5ths point. Walter Moody is a young Scottish gentleman, recently estranged from his father and brother, who has just arrived on the barque Godspeed at Hokitika, which for the life of me, I could not pronounce inside my own head. It’s a goldrush town in New Zealand, and Moody intends to work by the sweat of his own brow and earn his fortune. He checks into the Crown Hotel, looking for a drink and a place to smoke and be quiet, and unwittingly comes upon a meeting of 12 men, meant to be conducted in secrecy, thrown together by mystery and circumstance.

Things in Hokitika seem to happen very slowly, or all at once. On the very same night, the most popular prostitute in town, Anna, attempts suicide, the richest man in town, Emery Staines, disappears and a poor hermit, Crosbie Wells, dies of natural causes alone in his hut. There is also a half-bottle of laudanum found on the floor, and the man is clutching an empty bottle of spirits. His death might not have registered comment, except for the windfall of gold found hidden in his shack, and the widow no one knew about who comes sweeping into town, confusing the distribution of the property, already well under way.

In short, the simplest item – the man dead of drink and laudanum, is the most confusing. No one doubts the prostitute addicted to opium tried to kill herself, everyone would like to find Emery Staines, but the deal with the hermit and the probate, and all that gold is the real mystery! And those are the simplest things in the whole book. A web connects all the men in the Crown Hotel, and that’s why they’ve come together, to share what they know, and see if they can come to a conclusion. Seeming to think that Moody has been sent to them by providence (an outside ear, a man who trained to be a lawyer) they bring him into their confidence. This is the first large chunk of the book, where they lay out the web of coincidences and occurrences that links them all. The narrative is not the man Balfour relaying the information there in the smoking room – that would be tedious. The story is told to you just like you are reading a 3rd person POV story. This is convenient, because you’ve got 12 points of view. It’s weaved together in an interesting tale with all these switchbacks and revelations. Just when you think you know it all, you don’t. Everybody knows each other! Everyone has something in their past. It’s an amazing feat of a novel, to succinctly unravel this incredibly layered story.

Who is this cast of characters? There is the druggist whose laudanum was found at Crosbie’s cabin, the hotelier, Clinch, who bought the dead man’s land. The clerk, Aubert Gascoigne, who filled out much of the paperwork. The Banker Frost who helped the sale go through, very quickly and some would say, rather too quickly. Te Rau Tauwhare, the Maori friend of the dead man who might have seen someone enter his hut. Harold Nillson, who received a huge commission on assisting in the sale of the property and possessions. Dick Mannering, the whoremonger who sold the claim where the gold came from. Cowell Devlin, the chaplain who went to gather the dead man’s body and found a mysterious document. Quee, the indentured man who worked on the claim the gold came from. Sook, an opium dealer who sold Anna her dope. It’s unclear if all these people are being framed in some dastardly plot, are participants in what has happened, are telling the truth, or if it’s all just coincidence and no one is to blame for anything.

I found this to be a very slow read – it took me 7 days and it’s 832 pages of story. The last two Wheel of Time books, at 863 and 909 pages respectively only took me 3 days each. I don’t know why I kept putting it down. I did enjoy the book. Because so much of the book takes part in the past, you learn all the pertinent stuff… then we catch up to the current time. You realize that there are missing links in the story. We don’t know things from the point of view of the principles: namely, Emery, Anna and Crosbie… and Frank Carver, a villain who hovers at the edge of all the mysteries, and whose identity is in question. Lydia Wells, the widow, is also a huge part of the story. Once we are done with the connections of the 12 men, we take a farther step back and find out how the principles were connected back in Dunedin. We get even more info and there is more revelation. Lies and misdirection have colored our perceptions and seem to change every few pages.

I did like the pacing – I didn’t have a problem with it until Part IX. The book is in 12 parts, each one has an astrological chart as a header. Astrology and the influence of the stars and houses are mentioned throughout. It’s all gobbledygook to me and I just read over it. I don’t know what it means when Cancer is in decline. I don’t know that it means anything to anyone except astrologists. But after part IX you know everything there is to know, and still the author takes you back and makes you read how all the dots came together. I was so bored. The headers of each chapter, which read like old-timey chapter headings (“In which our allegiances have shifted, as our countenance makes clear”) go from one or two sentences to huge paragraphs that are basically drivel. Each chapter at this point is less than a couple pages, sometimes only a few paragraphs. I wish she had ended the book another way, rather than take us through three more “parts” that are just repetition.

Even so, I really enjoyed this. It’s an old fashioned type of tale and yet unique and I think this is a great historical that is not only for those that read historicals.

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