A Novel by Eleanor Catton
2013 /848 Pages
Reading the synopses of each of the 2013 Booker Long Listed novels made it very difficult to choose which book to read first. At first glance each book appeared to have a very good opportunity to not only make it to the short list but also win out right. Slowly picking through the list using various means of choice including random number generator I finally picked up The Luminaries. I am very glad I did.
The Luminaries is a historical fiction novel set during the gold rush in New Zealand in 1865-1866. Yet this novel is more than historical fiction. It is a ghost story, a love story, and an intriguing mystery. The novel starts with a secret gathering of twelve men to discuss the disappearance of a weathly young man, the apparent attempted overdose of a prostitute, and the death of the town recluse and what was found in his cabin after his death. The gathering is interrupted by a thirteenth character who adds his additional perspective and eery story to that of the others.
The cast of characters is long and each of the 19 prominent characters has a place in the story.
Interestingly enough, Catton does such a great job of character development that not long after being introduced to each one, the reader easily remembers where that character fits into the story. (I will mention, if you are only able to read this book in snippets, one may want to add notes to the character chart or keep up with a separate list.) The cast includes characters you take an immediate liking too, are distrustful of, have a distinct disliking towards, feel sorry for and genuinely believe you know. Somehow Catton weaves these characters into the story and the perspective from each is very important. As the story unfolds, the reader can not put the book down – it is like a opiate to an addict. The reader has an unquenchable “thirst” to see what happens next.
The crafting of The Luminaries is as good as or better than the story. I love books that are not straight forward and require the reader to piece together the actual events. I liken this novel to working a jigsaw puzzle – except that instead of having all of the pieces turned right side up on the table in front of you, they have been hidden all over the house and must be found before the puzzle can begin to be put together. Catton has constructed the novel using the perspective of the 19 characters while vacillating in time. I loved finding a “nugget” that fit in with the rest of the story as the novel unfolded.
Additionally, Catton has added another dimension to the novel by constructing it “astronomically” which is explained in a Note to the Reader at the beginning of the book. Unfortunately, I know nothing about astronomy and only know that my “sign” is Virgo – I could not even begin to list more than two or three of the other signs of the zodiac. Nor do I understand the vernal equinox or other lunar references. I am sure that I missed several symbols that parallel aspects of astronomy and the construction of the story. However, I still thoroughly enjoyed the novel without being one of the more “enlightened” readers.
The Luminaries gets my vote for this years Booker award. I know I still have six more long listed novels to read, but I can not imagine that any can hold a candle to Catton’s rich story. I believe that it even has the mettle to stand next to last years winner, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.