“The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton (Little, Brown, 830 pages, $27)
New Zealand author Catton’s second novel, “The Luminaries,” won the 2013 Man Booker Prize. At 28, Catton became the youngest author to win that prestigious prize.
After making my way through this engrossing, multilayered, 830-page book, I would agree with the judges. Catton not only sets her story in 19th-century New Zealand, she adopts the style of many 19th-century novels: an omniscient narrator who at times speaks in asides to the reader, an array of finely drawn characters, a plot involving mystery about who did what when, plus references to forces beyond our human realm.
The book is set during the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s and organized according to the astrological signs of its characters and the position and movements of the planets above 19th-century New Zealand. Catton has said in an interview that she wanted the book to begin on Jan. 27, 1866, a day when there was a triple convergence in the heavens, three planets in Sagittarius. Each chapter carries a title to reflect this zodiacal influence, such as “Mercury in Sagittarius.” However, the book can be enjoyed, as I enjoyed it, without paying much attention to this but focusing more on the plot.
The narrative begins with a young man named Water Moody arriving in the town of Hokitika on a stormy night. He’s come to make his fortune in the New Zealand goldfields. He ends up in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel, where twelve men are holding a secret meeting, which he overhears.
He learns, as do we, the outline of the mystery the rest of the book will unravel. A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. We will discover, however, that events are much more complicated than this simple outline.
Catton tells her complex story through the perspectives of its many characters, alternating among them as the events and what led to them become clearer. We eventually learn the histories of the various characters and gain at least some sympathy for each of them.
Her descriptions reflect that 19th-century style: “the rough simplicity of the place only made him draw back internally, as a rich man will turn swiftly to the side, and turn glassy, when confronted with a beggar in the street.” She has done her research and captures the grime and hardness of that time and place: “The glow of youth was quite washed from them. They would be crabbed forever, restless, snatching, gray in body, coughing dust into the brown lines of their palms.”
This was a place unlike Moody’s native Scotland, a place where “every fellow was foreign to the next man, and foreign to the soil; … where there were no divisions.”
This is a book you settle into, following each character as the plot unfolds, eager to learn the answers to the many riddles Catton has spun. The language grows on you, and the authorial interludes (“We will interject to observe”) add to the pleasure.
Along the way we learn much about that period in history and that part of the world. We learn, for example, that opium “was China’s warning. It was the shadow-side of Western expansion – its dark complement, as a yin to a yang.”
Adding to the book’s complexity, Catton moves the narrative around chronologically, going back in time to fill in just how certain characters came to be where and how they are, though she always provides a date for each chapter heading.
By the novel’s end, I felt both satisfied in knowing what happened but wishing to know what happens next. In short, I did not want this long, enjoyable novel to end.