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I cannot think of a better way to welcome the new year than with a story of fate and fortune, of men and women who put their faith in lady luck and set out for a foreign land in search of gold, and with it the promise of reinvention—a chance to begin anew.
While characters in Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013) take a risk to seek their fortune in New Zealand’s goldrush towns, as a reader I was fairly certain I’d struck a bonanza when I picked The Luminaries from the shelf.
Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal (2008), was an impressive debut, more so for the fact that Catton was still in her early twenties at the time of publication. The Luminaries won the 2013 Man Booker Prize, making Catton, at just 28, the youngest ever recipient of one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards.
Set in 1866 in the New Zealand goldrush town of Hokitika, The Luminaries is written in the style of a 19th century novel. The night Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika aboard The Godspeed, a group of twelve men (who correspond to the twelve signs of the zodiac) from all ranks of the town’s small society gather at the Crown Hotel to discuss a series of strange events. A hermit is found dead in his hut with a half empty phial of laudanum and four thousands pounds in pure gold. Within days a woman claiming to be his widow arrives to claim his fortune. Meanwhile, the town’s richest man has disappeared and the last person to see him alive—the town’s most popular whore—is found unconscious and dosed with opium on the street and wakes to find a small fortune in gold sewn into the lining of her dress. To these odd events Moody adds a further mystery—an event witnessed on The Godspeed that struck terror into his heart.
What slowly unravels is a tale of blackmail, false identities, miscommunication, slight of hand and strange bedfellows that could only occur on an island at the end of the earth where every man and woman is hiding from some aspect of their past, has fallen so low that they put their faith in the stars and claw at the dirt with the hope of finding a glimmering nugget to turn their luck.
Being a novel of fate and fortune, the characters are, quite literally, guided by the stars. At the start of each section, they are plotted on an astrology chart, and the chapter titles map the movement of the planets and stars. So while the narrative appears to plunge the reader into chaos, the confusion is gradually revealed as complex and elegant design that ultimately brings both reader and characters full circle to restore balance and order.
The Luminaries starts out as a fascinating tale, and its mysteries and thrill of the New Zealand goldrush alone are enough to hold the reader’s intrigue for the hefty eight-hundred-and-thirty pages that the novel spans. However, The Luminaries true genius comes to light as Catton slowly begins to reveal the complex mechanics that guide the narrative—the dance of the planets and stars that so neatly balances each character against their opposing forces, guiding each minute action to perfectly execute a grand plan.
It is rare to find a novel such as this in which the mechanics of the story are more fascinating than the story itself, and yet these mechanics are not so gaudily visible as to become pretentious, and it is not until the final page that the reader comprehends the full scale of what Catton has accomplished.
I had The Luminaries on my shelf for months. I kept putting off reading it until my holidays because I wanted to give it the attention it deserved. I’m so incredibly glad I did. Once I started this great wheel of fortune spinning, I could not look away until it stopped.