I first heard of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton through Anna from A Case for Books who had fallen in love with the novel before it won its deserved Man Booker Prize of the YEAR 2013. So, I asked Granta Press for a review copy and they kindly sent me the heaviest hardback I have ever laid my hands on.
It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have men in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: 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. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky.
Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bus, The Luminaries is a brilliantly constructed, fiendishly clever ghost story and a gripping page-turner. It is a thrilling achievement for someone still in her midtwenties, and will confirm for critics and readers that Eleanor Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament
One of the first things that called my attention about The Luminaries was its size. It has 894 pages and in my usually Terrier-fashion I usually start to lose interest in page 400 and I will not find it again until I am done. For me, finishing Anna Karenina was verging on torture. But, since I like to challenge myself and Anna was so enthusiastic about the book, I asked for a review copy. Once it arrived, family and friends expressed their surprise at the book size while I thought: “It’d better be excellent”. Lucky me, it was.
The first text you encounter as you start reading The Luminaries is a character list, so Catton grabbed my attention from the very beginning. Then, there is an explanation about the heavens and astronomy so that we know from the beginning that the stars, the Moon and the Sun and their movements will play key roles in the characters’ dynamics. Now, do not let this scare you: I have no idea about astronomy, but it did not interfere in any way in my enjoying and understanding the book. Having said that, Catton is a genius in creating and simulating both astronomical and personal relationships.
The story starts when Walter Moody arrives to Hokitika in New Zealand in search for a better life and finds himself sitting on a hotel living room with 12 other men who stare suspiciously at him. When he finds out those 12 men are hosting a secret meeting, he finds his own place in the story – for everything is connected – and that is how the story really begins: by 12 men telling their side of a story. Being a fan of crime fiction and postmodern literature, I found Catton’s idea splendid: can we really trust what others – or even ourselves! – tell us? Catton puts it more beautifully in Moody’s words:
Mody paused a moment, thinking. “In a court of law”, he said at last, “a wtiness takes his oath to speak the truth: his own truth, that is. He agrees to two parameters. His testimony must be the whole truth, and his testimony must be nothing but the truth. Only the second of these parameters is a true limit. The first, of course, is largely a matter of discretion. When we say the whole truth we mean, more precisely, all the facts and impressions that are pertinent to the matter at hand. All that is impertinent is not only immaterial; it is, in many cases, deliberately misleading. […] “I contend that there are no whole truths, there are only pertinent truths – and pertinence, you must agree, is always a matter of perspective.
Since I do not wish the wonderful story The Luminaries is, I will not reveal anything more about the plot. But, certainly, Catton’s prose deserves a lot of attention. Throughout the 894 pages, I only felt my attention drift away a couple of times because there is always something relevant and attention-catching happening. Details and crucial in The Luminaries and Catton wants her readers to make the connections for themselves which is something to be thankful nowadays.
Regarding women’s representation, there are only 3 women with an active role and although none of them are the kind of characters that I would root for, I found myself enjoying their company and not finding fault with any of them. As a minority in a colonial environment, women had it more difficult to survive than men did and all of them did what it was needed to survive. So, no wonder I cheered for them (specially for one!).
So, after this review and after giving the book a 5 star review at Goodreads, I think it is obvious that this is a must-read for everyone willing to spend time and a lot of attention on their next read.