It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand 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 fortune 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.
First published: 2013
Last year, my mother got The Luminaries for her birthday, and I thought: “I should borrow that some time, it’s supposed to be good”. Of course, we all know what happens next — there are so many other good books you’ve been dying to read, so this “supposed to be good” book falls to the wayside. But then one of my friends (hi Esmé!) managed to get Eleanor Catton to visit the literary student association I am a member of in order to give a lecture. That lecture took place last week (and was really great!) and I finished the book a few days after, despite my best efforts to get it done in time. Time management isn’t (always) my strong suit!
When I first started reading I wasn’t sure if I was going to like the book very much. The gold rush isn’t particularly a topic I have an interest in, and — I have to be honest here — the 850 pages were a bit daunting. I suspected I was going to have to struggle through at some points, or that I was going to be bored after the first 100 pages.
That didn’t happen at all. In fact, I was rather surprised by how much of a quick read the book was, despite the somewhat formal (perhaps even slightly archaic) way of writing. I mean, it still took me a few weeks to read it, but that mostly had to do with the sheer length of the novel and the fact that I didn’t have any time. Once I sat down to read for a while, I just flew through the pages. It is wonderfully written in such a unique manner, combining the old-fashioned language of the 19th century with a 21st century perspective.
Another thing I wasn’t really expecting was how captivated I became by the mystery of the story. I didn’t realise it was it was actually going to be this much of a mystery, and I love myself a good mystery. Slowly, everything started to fall into place, and it kept me on the edge of my seat until the very last page. Of course, there were slower parts, like some of the parts where Catton tells, and doesn’t show. There’s a lot of this going on, what with the history of all of the characters being important to the story. I mostly didn’t mind the telling (it was necessary for the story) but those parts were a bit slower to read and a little less intriguing than some of the other parts.
There are so many different characters in this novel, and at first I was afraid I was going to have trouble to tell them apart, but luckily that wasn’t really an issue. They are all really interesting characters, with personalities that are described quite elaborately, which was nice. However, for some reason I did not really connect with them, which is probably mostly because of the fact that the overwhelming majority of them are (quite old-fashioned, prejudiced) men. There are only two important female characters, and they are a (former) prostitute and a very cold and calculating business woman. I understand that this was mostly a man’s world, and that’s fine, but a bit more of a connection would’ve made this novel even better for me.
The entire plot of the novel, and its characters, are based on planetary movements that actually took place in this time (on the exact days even), and that just blew my mind. I have to say, I didn’t know that this was the case until she told us about it in the lecture, but it added a very interesting dimension to my reading experience for the last 250 pages I still had to go. However, while this is certainly a very creative way to determine the plot of a novel, it did not add that much to the story for me, and I don’t think this knowledge is necessary to enjoy the novel. Then again, there would be no story (at least, not this one) if it weren’t for those planetary movements and I am very impressed with the entire procedure.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Luminaries, and I can really recommend it to anyone who isn’t afraid of a big story.