This is the novel that won the Booker Prize in 2013 but despite the hype surrounding it at the time and the fact that it did sound like a book I would enjoy, I have been putting off reading it, mainly because of its length. As well as the Booker Prize, though, it was also nominated for the Walter Scott Prize in 2014 and as I’m slowly working through the shortlists for that particular prize, I decided it was time I read it.
The Luminaries is set in the New Zealand town of Hokitika during the Gold Rush of the 1860s. The story revolves around several strange occurrences which all take place on the same night in January 1866: Emery Staines, one of the town’s richest men disappears without trace; prostitute Anna Wetherell collapses in the street in what is thought to be a suicide attempt; and the reclusive Crosbie Wells is found dead in his own home, surrounded by a large quantity of hidden gold. These things may not seem to be connected at first, but of course they are – as is everything else that happens throughout the 800 pages of this very clever and complex novel.
The first and by far the longest section of the book begins with the arrival of Scottish lawyer, Walter Moody, who is hoping to make his fortune on the goldfields. On his first evening in Hokitika he walks into the Crown Hotel to find that he has interrupted a meeting between twelve men who have gathered to try to make sense of what has been happening. These twelve men are all linked in some way with Emery, Anna, Crosbie or all three – and as Walter listens to their stories he too is drawn into the mystery.
In the sections of the novel that follow – each one half the length of the one before – we move forwards and then backwards in time learning more about each of the main characters and the events leading up to the night of 14th January 1866.
The decreasing length of the chapters corresponds with a waning moon (hinted at by the images on the front cover), one of many astrological elements Eleanor Catton has incorporated into the novel. The character list at the front of the book lists the twelve men who meet in the hotel under the heading ‘Stellar’ and each one is associated with a sign of the Zodiac, while the other characters are listed as ‘Planetary’. Each of the twelve sections of the book begins with an astrological chart and within each section the individual chapters have astrological titles. This was intriguing at first but as I don’t have a lot of interest in astrology it didn’t mean much to me and I quickly gave up trying to interpret it and concentrated on following the story instead.
I have seen lots of comparisons between The Luminaries and the Victorian sensation novels of Wilkie Collins, one of my favourite authors, but I’m not sure if I really agree with that comparison. The book does include lots of elements of the sensation novel (hidden treasure, opium addiction, double identities, séances, forgeries and family secrets) but Eleanor Catton’s writing, in my opinion, lacks the flair and humour of Wilkie Collins’ and the gift for creating strong, unforgettable characters. Apart from one or two, the twelve men of the Crown felt interchangeable and I had to keep looking back at the character list to remind myself which was which. The other eight were slightly stronger (they were the Planetary characters and the ones who tended to drive the story forward) but of these, Anna Wetherell was the only one I really came to care about.
I did enjoy reading The Luminaries, though, and can definitely see why it has been so successful. I was very impressed by the intricate plotting with facts and secrets being slowly unveiled and connections between the characters gradually revealed. I also loved the setting; I have read very few novels set in New Zealand and I certainly haven’t read any set in a New Zealand gold mining town in the 1860s! Because Hokitika is a real place, I could find lots of pictures online which really helped to bring the setting to life. The length of the book wasn’t a problem for me either; the pages seemed to go by much more quickly than I’d expected them to – especially in the second half, where the chapters become shorter and the pace becomes faster.
I know there were a lot of things happening in The Luminaries that I didn’t completely understand (especially all of the allusions to astrology) and lots of little details that I missed. I would probably have to read the book again to be able to fully appreciate it, but for now I’m happy just to have read it once and to have enjoyed it!