It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the West Coast goldfields. On the night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous sum of money 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 patterned as the night sky.
But it is also a massive shaggy dog story; a great empty bag; an enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat. For nothing in this enormous book, with its exotic and varied cast of characters whose lives all affect each other and whose fates are intricately entwined, amounts to anything like the moral and emotional weight one would expect of it. That's the point, in the end, I think, of The Luminaries. It's not about story at all. It's about what happens to us when we read novels – what we think we want from them – and from novels of this size, in particular. Is it worthwhile to spend so much time with a story that in the end isn't invested in its characters? Or is thinking about why we should care about them in the first place the really interesting thing? Making us consider so carefully whether we want a story with emotion and heart or an intellectual idea about the novel in the disguise of historical fiction … There lies the real triumph of Catton's remarkable book.
This astonishing historical novel opens in Hokitika, New Zealand in 1866, a gold mining town along the West Coast of the South Island. Founded two years previously, Hokitika is in the midst of a population boom, as prospectors, hoteliers and other businessmen have flocked there after news of its vast riches and promise of easy wealth has reached people living within and outside of New Zealand. One of those men is Walter Moody, a young Englishman who is trained in law but seeks gold to provide him with material comfort and the start of a new life. He arrives in town after a harrowing and emotionally distressing voyage at sea, and after he checks in at a local hotel he proceeds to its smoking room, where he hopes to unwind with a pipe and a stiff drink. Upon his arrival he notices that 12 men are already there, who appear to be from different backgrounds but also seem to have gathered in secret for a particular reason. The atmosphere in the room is tense and troubled upon his entry, but in his agitated state Moody doesn't sense that he has disturbed them. He is approached by one of the men, while the others appear to direct their attention toward their conversation, and after slowly gaining their confidence the men begin to share their intertwined stories with Moody, and the reason for their confidential meeting.
The story is centered around several mysterious and apparently interconnected occurrences that took place two weeks previously on a single night, including the death of a hermit in a shack overlooking town, the disappearance of a young man who has struck it rich in a gold mine, and the apparent near suicide of the town's most alluring prostitute. Every man in the room claims to be innocent of any direct involvement, yet they all appear to share some responsibility in the events that led up to these crimes, and each one fears that he may be accused and held accountable.
The reader learns more about these 12 men, Moody, and several other key players, as the story takes on a more defined shape. However, just as it seems to become more clear new twists arise and relationships emerge between previously unconnected characters, which made the tale more compelling and delightfully puzzling. I exclaimed out loud numerous times at various points ("Wait, what?" "Whoa!", etc.), and except for one relatively dead spot near the novel's midway point I was captivated from the first page to the last.
No review could adequately convey the intricacy and complexity of this novel, along with its numerous subplots and themes, and Catton's ability to maintain its momentum through 832 pages was akin to a performer riding a fast moving rollercoaster while juggling various objects of different sizes for hours on end. My biggest critique is its ending, which felt rushed and overly tidy, and despite its length I would have preferred for it to have been extended by another 50-100 pages.
The Luminaries is a masterful literary symphony, and a work of historical fiction that compares favorably with similarly superb novels such as The Children's Book, The Stranger's Child and The Glass Room. There are few books of this size that I would love to start reading again immediately after finishing it, but this is one of them, and young Ms Catton is to commended for a brilliant novel that should be a strong contender for this year's Booker Prize.
Into this environment comes Walter Moody, arrived in Hokitika via the ship Godspeed. He unwittingly walks into a secret conference of twelve men in the Crown Hotel, and becomes privy to a narrative of recent events involving Frank Carver, captain of the Godspeed; Crosbie Wells, a hermit; Alastair Louderback, a local politician; Lydia Greenway, a madame; the prostitute Anna Wetherell; Emery Staines, a young man who has gone missing; and, of course, a fortune in pure gold. In Part I, which represents nearly half the novel, Eleanor Catton spins the tale through the eyes of these twelve men. None of them know the full story, but each has a perspective based on their interactions with the principals.
Catton then proceeds to flesh out the story, always from an angle slightly askew from that in Part I. The reader picks up details here and there, like filling in a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle after someone else has completed the edge. The principal characters take on greater depth as their back stories unfold. I found myself hissing at the bad guys and cheering for the good guys, and then looking quizzically a the page when a good guy suddenly showed signs of being a bad guy, or vice versa. The plot is complex and circular, but really the conflict resolution hardly matters. This is a fun book to read for its characters, and the intricacies and pace. I'm usually happy when I finish a book this long, but this time I'm actually tempted to re-read it straight away.
In 1866, Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika, New Zealand to try his luck in the gold fields. He wanders into the hotel’s smoking room and finds himself in the midst of a tense group of men who are discussing some disturbing events, that each of the men seem to have some part in: the unexpected death of a drunken hermit and the discovery of an enormous fortune in his cottage, the apparent suicide attempt of a popular town prostitute, and the apparent disappearance of the town’s wealthiest man.
And then we’re off to the races, as Catton leads us through the 360 page first book, setting up one of the most unique and complicated mysteries ever written. As Moody listens, he ponders the information and its consequences:
No one man could really be called “guilty,” just as no man could really be called “innocent.” They were ---associated? Involved? Entangled? Moody frowned. He felt that he did not possess the right word to describe their interrelation. Pritchard had used the word “conspiracy”…but the term was hardly applicable, when each man’s involvement was so incidental, and each man’s relation to the events in question so palpably different. No: the real agents, and the real conspirators, were surely those men and women who were not present---who each had a secret that he or she was trying to hide!” (Page 350)
Filled with rich characters, the author transports us to the middle of the gold fields and into the town that holds everyone’s dreams in the palm of its hand. Her ability to bring to life this time period is only surpassed by her intricate plotting. Very highly recommended.
The book is 815 pages long and has an interesting structure. There are 12 parts, each linked to a zodiac sign. The most obvious thing about the structure is that each chapter is twice as long as the next. That makes Part 1 360 pages long. It’s clever, but it’s not just a trick – it somehow fits the pace of the book. And it’s not like Part 1 dragged. The Zodiac stuff passed me by totally but I might go back and try to figure out some of the diagrams now that I know whodunnit.
Overall though it is a really good story that vividly evokes goldfield life on the West Coast. At the start of the book, Walter Moody has just arrived in Hokitika. He’s had a scary boat ride from Port Chalmers in Dunedin (where I grew up). He settles himself into the Crown hotel and goes down to the bar for a quiet meal, and 360 pages later we get to Part 2 of the book. This is a book with loads of characters: everyone who made a goldrush town tick. Very few of them actually dig for gold. There’s a newspaper owner, bank manager, commission agent, court clerk, opium dealer, chemist, prostitute, pimp, hotel owner, chaplain, gaoler, politician, ship captain, local guide, and lots more. Every one of them is important to the plot, and you have to concentrate at times to follow the mystery, but I didn’t find it hard to keep up.
It took me a few weeks to read this but I got through the last half in 2 or 3 days. Don’t draw it out too long or you might forget who does what to whom...
Highly recommended if you like historical fiction, mysteries, good writing, or all 3. Not recommended if you don't like complicated plots.
To love this story, you have to: 1) enjoy historical fiction; 2) have a love for stories that have a slow, rolling gait to them - think sagas like Lonesome Dove; and 3) take pleasure in observing a mystery unfold in a slow, meditative manner as pieces to the well crafted puzzle click into place, one, by one, by one....click, click, click.... with the unhurried pace of a watchmaker at work on an intricate piece of machinery - gear A cannot turn until gear B has been triggered by gear C which relies on switch D, etc, etc. Slow, steady, intricate and interconnected are the words to describe this gem of a book. Yes, Catton lost me with the astrological references for all of the chapter headings but that stuff usually goes over my head and I tend to not pay much attention to that fine a detail when I am reading a book for pleasure and escapism.
Overall, a gem of a story that brought sanity to my crazy RL over the past two weeks and, as with most big books, I was saddened to see it come to an end. Catton's characters make an interesting group of individuals. Having read a number of books about the gold rushes of California and the Klondike regions of North America, it was refreshing and at the same time comfortingly familiar to read Catton's story set during New Zealand's gold rush times.
So, then, what was it that failed to impress? Certainly the concept of carrying the plot through multiple characters with an unreliable narrator's voice is a known, respected and often brilliant literary device. Sequencing back and forth through time periods is also a respected and often brilliant literary device. Using astrological charts to preface every section of the novel was a touch of ingenuity, albeit one lost on a reader unfamiliar with the nuances and language of astrology. Including phrases of Cantonese and Maori is also laudable, were it not for the fact there was no contextual reference to give weight and meaning to the phrases so that they became nothing more than white noise.
The execution of many of these devices was, in my opinion, clumsily handled. The leaping around through time sequences often left me confused, in that there was rarely any linear progression to these sequences, so that one was unsure if we were in 1864, or 1857, or whenever.
The constant recapping of events ended up reading very much like a modern reality TV show, wherein we are told over and over again after each commercial break of disaster past or pending. For the first half of the novel we are endlessly regaled with this person's experience of a particular event and relationship to a particular background character, only to be followed by another chapter from a different person's perspective, and so on, and so forth for about twelve chapters. After about the third viewpoint I'm afraid I started to go a bit tharn, much like one of Richard Adam's unwitting bunnies.
Character development ended up feeling somewhat flat because of the cool distance of the voice of the unreliable narrator, and sometimes I had to wonder if Catton was in fact attempting to write farce instead of an historical mystery.
Catton chooses to open each chapter with a 19th century literary device by way of a synopsis of what is about to unfold, which is fine, up to a point, which I will reference later.
The denouement, which occurs somewhere around the two thirds mark, ended without resolution because although court sentence is passed upon villainous and guilty parties, we never really are given a complete resolution of the mystery, or what is to happen as a result, and instead the latter third of the novel again transports the reader to various, disparate points in the past.
And here we return again to the synopsis which prefaces each chapter, in that in those last chapter the synopses, which employ run-on sentences and breathless writing, end up becoming the narrative or story, with the actual events of the chapter little more than a few paragraphs of some almost irrelevant vignette. And these chapters hurtle on in a race, almost as if Catton wished done with the novel, to the point of being little more than drafts.
The last chapter is astonishing, with its verbose synopsis and sudden end of the novel through a declaration of one lover to another that she can hear the rain, something apparently extraordinary in New Zealand which has been portrayed as very wet, with near constant rain. One might better declare she can see the sun, that she is transported by the light, because certainly the novel failed any kind of transport of the imagination, and, instead, very much called to mind one reviewer's comment that The Luminaries was a big box full of nothing.
Over and over the author sets the scene, explains the people and their backgrounds only to return to that place or time and do it all over again. We even have characters reminding us of action, recapping what went before, as if we're just tuning into a weekly TV serial.
I really wanted to like some of these men, care about what happens to them, but for all Catton's depth of description, I couldn't get involved. And who are the women in this novel? A couple of prostitutes -- and the only characters not fully realized. Sure, some of the plot has to do with them, but the women themselves are mostly in the wings.
The zodiac allusions seemed to me to be extraneous devices imposed upon the plot.
After about 400 pages, the action begins. And I am not exaggerating.
I don't know enough astrology to pick up on that aspect of the book, and I've heard that knowledge does enhance it. What I got was basically a good shaggy dog tale with a neat setting, lots of quasi-Dickensian characters, and some very elegant writing. It was a bit of a reading time sink, but I'm not a number-of-books-read freak anyway, and in these doldrummy winter days it was really just the ticket.
In January 1866, young Walter Moody lands in a New Zealand gold mine town where he intends to stake his claim and make his fortune. As the novel opens, he has retired to the smoking room of his lodgings to unwind after an arduous journey. But Moody has obviously intruded on a private meeting between twelve local men who are discussing a tangle of events which have recently occurred and are thought to be linked: the attempted suicide of prostitute, Anna Wetherell; the death of alcoholic recluse, Crosbie Wells; and the disappearance of the town’s wealthy gold-digger, Emery Staines.
What I Liked/Didn’t: I love a good adventure story, and The Luminaries is well-written (if too long-winded) and embodies many such elements: shipwrecks, blackmail, opium, séances, gold. The muck and squalor of the frontier appeals, too – a gold town being about as seedy as it gets. The novel has a lengthy and imaginative cast of characters, but I did not find them terribly well-developed. While the physical detail is meticulous, I struggled to separate one from the other for at least half the novel – outside of bad-guy Francis Carver, which I thought overdone. The astrological structure of the novel, while impressive, was lost on me; the last several Parts were so brief they were choppy. And I found overall the novel was too tightly controlled: I wanted to live with the characters in the squalor of a 19th century gold town. Like in deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers: “It’s a good place to kill someone, I have heard. When they are not busily burning the entire town down, they are distracted by its endless rebuilding.” (Ch 2)
Recommended: to those who enjoy a 19th century frontier setting, a well-written, long, tangled, adventure yarn; and to those who follow the Booker Prize.
“There’s no charity in a gold town. If it looks like charity, look again.” (Pt 4)
To me, the impressive feat is that the reader can disregard the existence of each of these rules and simply enjoy an absorbing, engaging yarn, full of mystery, murder, gold, love, lust, revenge, betrayal . . . I don't want to give anything away, but suffice it to say that I could not put the book down. I'm not sure if the progressive compression was a factor in hurtling me forward? But I found myself staying up well past my bedtime on multiple nights, just to read a bit further.
As much as I enjoyed the story itself, it's the structure that keeps me thinking about the book.
The Luminaries is, I think, a historic literary achievement. If it doesn't win this year's Man Booker Prize, you'll be able to knock me over with a feather. Yeah, that's the most polite way to put it. I cannot wait to read this novel again. It's a pleasure to read, and it bears substantial scholarly scrutiny as a work of literary art.
I've commended novelists for their ambition in some of my previous reviews. Eleanor Catton's ambition is revealed first by the somewhat abstract astrological structure she sets up for her work -- it's the kind of move a book meant merely to entertain does not dare. It reminds me somewhat of James Joyce's modeling his masterwork about June 16th in the life of Dedalus and Bloom, Ulysses, after Homer's Odyssey. While Catton's pretense does not match that of Joyce, her execution of her work places it squarely within the same tradition of masterful examples of the novel.
Also, as a sidenote, I found that some of Catton's prose reminded me of Joyce's in the penultimate catechism-type episode in Ulysses. I did not do a close side-by-side comparison, but that was the impression that jumped to the front of my mind as I read. In its scope and achievement, this work also calls to mind George Eliot's Middlemarch.
To speak more of The Luminaries on its own terms, as really I ought:
--There's poetry in this prose; it's everywhere evocative.
--The narrative voice is free and easy; Catton doesn't give the sense that she's trying too hard. To write such a complex and masterful work so confidently blows my mind. If I were to characterize her narrative style altogether in a few words I would choose: playful, with an affectionate disposition to reader and the narrative itself.
--Like other great novels I've mentioned in this review, it unites macroscopic and microscopic views of its subject matter and does so in a circumscribed setting in terms of time and place. This focuses the range of detail and ultimately epic effect of the work.
The Luminaries is resplendent; you won't want to miss it, dear readers. All you English majors, dust off your rigorous analytical skills, and all you lovers of literature, dust off that part of your heart that feels great books. Some classic literature is happenin' here!
I hope this helps; thanks for reading my ideas. Please be advised I read an electronic galley by generous permission of the publisher Little, Brown and Company.
In my experience, it isn't often that a long book can hold my attention throughout. But this one did. I think one of the main ways it did, was by having the many characters repeat their experience of events that other characters had already been through. This way we not only get a more thorough grasp of events, but we get each persons side of the story and therefore to know each character well by the end. All good stuff. And then there is the story itself. It unfolds so intricately! Details emerge here and there, and our picture is formed slowly but assuredly of what has transpired. We are tantalised by facts and clues, but not taunted by what they allude to. I have heard descriptions of Catton's writing being remarkably restrained, I think so too. It is a collection of words beautifully put together.
An enjoyable read though
Based in NZ gold fields
A short word before I get into my review. I understand that this book just isn't for me. It's longlisted for the Booker, Goodreads reviewers generally love it, the author is a real up-and-comer... but it just didn't do it for me.
I think it may have been unfortunate that I read this book so quickly after reading another that really blew me away (Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates), so I kept comparing them (even if I didn't want to or mean to) as I read this one. As a quick glance into my mindset, I'll post a comparison here and maybe you can understand why I just couldn't get into the book.
Both books included parts where people were looking into mirrors, as a way for the author to describe what drives these superficial, yet self-conscious, people.
One of my favorite passages from Revolutionary Road describes *so much* about the character in a single line: "He looked at himself in the mirror, tightening his jaw and turning his head a little to one side to give it a leaner, more commanding look, the face he had given himself in mirrors since boyhood and which no photograph had ever quite achieved..." Amazing. One glance in a mirror and we see how superficial and vulnerable this person is.
In The Luminaries, Catton describes a man looking into a mirror in this way. I find it to be terribly long-winded and boring:
"Moody was not unaware of the advantage his inscrutable grace afforded him. Like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior. He had passed a great many hours in the alcove of his private dressing room, where the mirror tripled his image into profile, half-profile and square: Van Dyck's Charles, though a good deal more striking. It was a private practice, and one he likely would have denied - for how roundly self-examination is condemned, by the moral prophets of our age! As if the self had no relation to the self, and one only looked in mirrors to have one's arrogance confirmed; as if the act of self-regarding was not as subtle, fraught and ever-changing as any bond between twin souls. In his fascination Moody sought less to praise his own beauty than to master it. Certainly whenever he caught his own reflection, in a window box, or in a pane of glass after nightfall, he felt a thrill of satisfaction - but as an engineer might feel, chancing upon a mechanism of his own devising and finding it splendid, flashing, properly oiled and performing exactly as he had predicted it should."
Wow. That's a mouthful that does two things: 1. describes how vulnerable he is via his superficial nature, just like the single line used by Yates, and 2. puts me to sleep. I like the bit about the engineer, it's a great line. That plus one other sentence would have been sufficient. But this book is filled with paragraphs upon paragraphs, pages upon pages, which could be cut out completely or at least shortened considerably. It's over 800 pages that could literally be used to fend off a home intruder. I worry that some young authors feel that they have to write a two-inch-thick saga in order to be taken seriously. I really struggled to read it and found that time was grinding to a halt. I read so I can relax and enjoy being swept away into another world. If this other world is so boring and tortuous that it makes me want to stop reading, it's just not worth it.
I obviously don't "get" the book. It's nothing against the author, who will have a long and fruitful career even though I didn't like what she wrote. I feel bad giving it one star, but given that this book made me dread the act of reading - something that I normally *love* - I really couldn't see any other alternative.
To be fair, the plot is intriguing, and I was initially sucked in to the story, which unfolds by stages, with a different character taking the lead in narrating each chapter. Boiled down to its essential ingredients Walter Moody, newly arrived in a small New Zealand town at the centre of that country's gold rush. Walking into the lounge of the hotel where he has put up he encounters twelve leading figures of the town who had gathered in private to discuss a complex series of crimes that have occurred in and around the town. Moody's arrival in the bar is initially unwelcome but the locals unbend and start narrating, in turn, the series of events that have so unnerved them.
I don't mind long books, or complex books, nor even long AND complex books, but I resent feeling that I am simply being asked along to pay homage to the writer's cleverness,however indisputable that cleverness might be!
The size of this book is off-putting, the style in which it is written I found to be hard work and the tying up of the loose connections in the last 30 odd pages after the courthouse scene just annoyed me. By that point I had pretty much worked it out for myself and really didn't want to know about the past - what i did want to know at that point is what the characters would do next. How would they move on?
I did like the way the mystery unfolded and each time you found the answer to one question another question (or two) would crop up - and to be perfectly honest it was the need to know how certain things happened that kept me going.
A few things were left unexplained - what Moody saw in the hold of the boat??? what was that all about?
How did (illiterate) Anna manage to read a document that she had never seen? And then perfectly forge Staine's signature when she had barely even met the man let alone seen his signature? Or was that supposed to prove they where somehow linked / astrologically the same person / as stated by Lydia when she drew up their natal charts??
Did the Astrological stuff mean anything or was it just a tool for the writer to include otherwise imposible connections / conjunctions?
I read this for book club but if it wasn't for bookclub I would not have finished it. It really bogs down in part 2 & 3. The second half of part 3 and part 4 give you answers and pick up the pace but it was around page 650 that I was eager to read and see what happened next.