Love, murder, convicts, gold, whores — Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013) had it all. Set in late 19th century New Zealand, in a town called Hokitika, the story begins with Scottish lawyer Walter Moody accidentally walking in on a secret meeting between a number of the town’s various men. Moody, who mistakes the meeting for a random assembly of no importance, promptly seats himself down and surveys the room. He is soon approached by Tom Balfour, a shipping agent, and is interrogated as to why he’s come to Hokitika. Moody soon learns of the meeting’s intentions, and inadvertently becomes involved in the solving of a series of crimes which had recently occurred in and around the settlement.
I took to The Luminaries with zeal. It was a little intimidating at first — 834 pages of solid text will do that. It ticked all of my boxes, however; I’m a fan of history and historical fiction at that, and New Zealand isn’t far from home so the setting already felt somewhat familiar. What I appreciated most, though, was how Catton adopted the 19th century writing style perfectly and without flaw. There isn’t a thing which irks me more than when an author chooses to write a historical story, but continues to use modern language in order to tell it. It immediately loses its authenticity and for me, personally, its overall enjoyment. That being said, I am very much a text-centred reader, so my reviews are bound to include criticisms which others may deem petty. By utilising the 19th century style, Catton was able to demonstrate the views held by each of the characters poignantly — from the disputes between the European settlers and the Chinese diggers, the gentlemen and the whores, the convicts and the constabulary.
In terms of structure, the book is heavily based upon astrological movements and zodiac signs (hence the title, The Luminaries). Each main character represents a sign; for example, Aubert Gascoigne, a justice’s clerk, is highly motivated by money and seeks only to benefit himself in each situation he comes to find himself in. Naturally, he represents Capricorn. Harald Nilssen, the commission merchant, is tactful when it comes to his business, but is also exceedingly superficial and finds it difficult to decline people’s requests for help, even when it involves breaking the law. He represents Libra. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture. The structure is what awarded the book praise and critical acclaim. The Observer described it as a “dazzling feat of a novel”, and The Guardian admired the sheer organisation of the book. The Luminaries won the 2013 Man Booker Prize and was short-listed for the Walter Scott Prize in 2014. It featured in The Economist‘s 2013 ‘Books Of The Year’ and was cited by the Wall Street Journal as one of the best fictions of 2013. Of course, these prizes and shiny stickers adorning its already elegant cover played a large part in my initial attraction to the novel. I’m a snob, I’ll admit it. Books aren’t rewarded for no reason, you know. Shiny things aside, however, I only have one issue:
I’m still not really sure what happened, in the end.
I re-read the ending several times, and it felt to be very rushed. Perhaps that was the author’s intention all along, to keep the chapters short and hyped in order to create this weird, “oh my god what’s happening” vibe, but in plainer words, it was a little confusing. The story seemed to do a full-loop, in-between explaining how things had come to be in the first place, and wrapping up those same events months later. I think I finally understood, after the fifth or sixth round of squinting down at the text, but don’t let that deter you. I could also just be dumb and prone to easy confusion. I mean have you even seen me try to do math? Ask anyone — it’s painful.
That single criticism aside, I loved The Luminaries. If I’d known this book would take me on a journey through 19th century New Zealand at the peak of the gold rush, I still would’ve picked it up anyway. I fully judged this book by its cover (it is very pretty, okay, trust me), and it turned out to be one of the most entertaining and intriguing things I’ve ever read.