Everyone has a past, people they know, things they’ve done that they don’t want others to hear about… but when those people are part of the late 19th century gold rushes the world begins to feel particularly small.
When Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika in 1866 the town is in the midst of the country’s latest gold rush. Like any weary traveller he stops for a rest and a pint at the local hotel only to come across an odd group of twelve men who’ve met in secret to discuss some recent strange occurrences; the town’s wealthiest man has suddenly disappeared, a hermit has died in mysterious circumstances and Hokitika’s favourite whore has been found close to dead on the road out of town.
As Walter Moody listens to the men talk about their experiences and what they know we begin to gather information about the town and its people. A good first half of The Luminaries is given over to this piecing together of a picture of who the town and it’s in habitants are. Although detailed and descriptive it is also very much only the surface view of who these people are although we don’t realise that until much later.
Twelve characters could be a lot of come to grips with – especially given only three (a Maori man and two Chinese) are not white middle-aged men. However, I never once felt lost – Catton has included a character list at the beginning of the book, which I found useful when I’d become complacent about which was Lowenthal and which was Lauderback but found myself rarely needing to refer to it, such is the level of characterisation.
I was keen to begin The Luminaries and found I needed to calm myself down and take it slow to appreciate the pace and settings of the book. After all, the first 45 pages are dedicated to one room and the very subtle movements that happen with it. This really is a masterpiece for people who are fans of literary fiction. However, in all its incredible characterisation and wonderful turn of phrase The Luminaries remains above all highly readable and enjoyable. There’s no doubt that Catton is clever and bright but she never needs to prove this at the expense of her reader –there’s no show-ponying and nothing to let any reader feel alienated.
In setting the scene of Hokitika in the gold rushes Catton surely undertook incredible levels of research – whether historically accurate or not (I’m sure it is) her setting is entirely believable. Having grown up in Southland we regularly took school trips to Arrowtown to study the Chinese goldminers huts and opium dens and never was I more interested in that part of our country’s history than I was in reading this book. Also the description of hotels and in particular the canvas walls of other buildings and houses were so well done I became completely immersed in the environment. The description of Crosbie Wells’ cottage amongst the timber yard kept me in mind of this painting in Te Papa’s collection – different part of New Zealand of course – but to my mind a similar setting.
The second half of The Luminaries (beginning with the second part – there are twelve) is where the veil lifts. I found myself anxiously reading passages that I couldn’t put down in the same way you might a thriller or murder mystery.
It wasn’t until about three-quarters of the way through the book that I began to form concrete theories of what I thought had happened. All at once pieces fell into place, I knew the characters true behaviours and could begin to understand what their real motives might be – these were the moments of thrilling discoveries and deep personal satisfaction.
Catton has the reader in the role of detective from the start but not in the quick thrill/TV crime show way we’re so used to. This is proper Police work where you slowly gather and piece, gather and piece until you’re ready to form tentative theories.
Eleanor Catton’s second novel The Luminaries is all at once contemporary literature, historical novel and murder mystery with a dash of romance. The level of fine detail in the story is staggering but never overdone – coming in at 830+ pages there’s not one part that I would want edited out. Each and every page deserves to be there.
The Luminaries not a book to race through but one to pace through – a book to enjoy; to savour, to think about. It’s a book that will put a twinkle on you from the start.
Other information about the book
Read The Listener’s review with Eleanor Catton – it’s a great read and I enjoyed what she said about writing.
Thank you to Victoria University Press for a review copy. Particular thanks for sending it months ago so I could take my time and really enjoy reading it instead of rushing through quickly for the sake of review.
Pre-order your book from the publisher or buy it through your local bookshop.