Monday 25 August 2014

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

'Tis done! I have turned the last page of The Luminaries, one of the larger novels I have read in some time, a book which put me in mind of Dickens, with its varied cast of characters, atmospheric setting and complex plotting.
    The story begins when Walter Moody, a young man lately of Scotland, arrives in Hokitika to chance his luck on the goldfields. He steps into a hotel lounge, and finds himself in the midst of a group of twelve men from all walks of life who have gathered to discuss the death of one man, the disappearance of another and the possible attempted murder of a prostitute. There is a large amount of gold involved as well as scullduggery, fraud and revenge.
    It is late January, 1866, and the reader might be forgiven for imagining we are in the northern hemisphere as the weather is wild and wet, and miserable. But actually this is summer. For we are on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, in a town just starting to flourish because of the gold rush, a frontier town with a treacherous bar where ships regularly founder and lives perish.
    Each character: the shipping merchant, Balfour, who is worried about a missing chest - the bank clerk, Frost, who has frittered away the commission on the sale of a deceased estate that perhaps shouldn't have been sold; the chemist, Pritchard, who has probably imported the opium that may have been involved in the crimes discussed; to name but three - has a story to tell that will become one part of the jigsaw that will produce a picture of what happened.
   And this picture takes time to describe, so the reader must sit back and be patient, like Walter Moody has to, and let the story be told. This accounts for the first three hundred and sixty odd pages. Each chapter has one of those little summaries that begins "In which ..." rather like you might find in a Victorian novel, and this is a big help in case you lose your way. With such a large cast of characters, this can easily happen.
    During the next chunk of the book, the reader finally gets swept along by the events that happen next, and the action really picks up with a court case and retribution to follow. The last chunk of the book winds back to the beginning with short abrupt chapters, in which the "In which" intros are often longer than the text that follows, and the story oddly enough seems to end quite well, even though we are nearer the beginning.
   The Luminaries is wonderfully written, recreating the West Coast gold rush and the odd types that might well have turned up there when there was nothing left to lose. With its rich prose wrought with care, engaging characters and a few decent nasty ones, and with its many layers - I didn't even get started on working out the significance of the astrology references - it is the kind of book you can happily read again and again - each reading offering up new riches. I wouldn't like to say if it was the best book on last year's Man Booker shortlist, but I for one was certainly not disappointed.

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