Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

When The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize it obviously garnered a lot of attention and it's unfortunate that it was mainly due to the fact it's so large and that Eleanor is the prize's youngest winner. What should be highlighted instead of these is the plot, the characters and the setting. It's a deeply rich book filled with luminous characters (see what I did there) and a wildly complex plot involving gold, guns, politics, prostitution and death.

The setting is 1860's New Zealand, a wilderness slowly populated by travellers wishing to make their fortune on the recent gold rush. The town of Hokitika has recently been erected and is slowly growing and with it comes a culture of greed and power struggles. We start our journey with Walter Moody, fresh off the boat 'Godspeed', as he accidentally becomes embroiled in a secret gathering of 12 men. These men have all been connected to the disappearance of wealthy young entrepreneur Emery Staines, the death of a drunk hermit Crosbie Wells and the incarceration and reformation of former prostitute Anna Wetherall.

One by one, these 12 men tell their story to Moody of where they have been over the past few weeks, leading up to the secret rendezvous at the Crown Hotel, where they have met Moody. The tales vary wildly, with most stories involving at least one other member of the twelve. Men in the group range from a Chinaman, a Maori, a banker, a chemist and a chaplain amongst others. With so many characters each telling their own stories, intertwining with several others, it could have become a bit too muddled but Catton has fleshed them out so much that they become real. Along with these 12 (13 including Moody) characters, we also get to hear each persons view of several other key cast members including Anna Wetherall, the violent Francis Carver and the deceased Crosbie Wells.

The first chapter is a whopping 360 pages long but it absolutely required every page due to the detail of each statement of the participants. Chapter 2 is also over 100 pages and concerns two weeks after the meeting at The Crown Hotel, with each man now in the knowledge of each others secrets. With these secretes slowly seeping out, and each person with something to lose, it becomes a tense, beautifully rich mystery.

The story has all been laid out using astrology, and according to Catton, the stars in the sky in 1866, and the astrological science behind it, is all heavily researched and correct. You need to know nothing of this as it doesn't enter the plot at all and is used merely as a structural tool, but after reading it I saw that each character had been plotted on a character chart at the front of the book. It's a very interesting way to structure the book as if you are up to date with the astrological field in 1866 New Zealand, you may have seen a few plot twists coming. I, however, only know up to 1864.

I would never have picked this up if 1) It wasn't nominated for the Booker Prize and 2) If we hadn't had it as our book club choice. I am so grateful that I did as it's one of the best books I've read this year. Don't let the length put you off as 832 pages went past quite quickly. It took me about 6 weeks to get through.

On the Comfometer it has received an 8.5. I'm looking forward to reading more of Catton's work.

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