Little, Brown & Co., 848 pages, $27
The Luminaries is a complex novel on at least a couple of levels. First of all, Eleanor Catton, a New Zealand author, has created a historical novel beyond measure. Set in the 1850s, during the hectic, heady period of South Island’s gold rush, Catton has crafted a murder mystery, a mystical conundrum, and a portrait of diverse people of the little mining settlement of Hokitika, South Island, New Zealand. Secondly, Catton has set her production to the music of the spheres. Almost every chapter is headed by an astrological determination. Twelve of the characters are represented by a sign of the Zodiac, and they interact with each other (the Stellar) and with the characters who have set the drama in motion (the Planetary).
Although there are many characters, Catton has 800 pages in which to waltz them about with each other. They dance solo or in duets, trios, or more. The book begins with a secret conclave of the twelve Zodiacal characters. Their meeting is accidentally disturbed by a newcomer, an unpracticed lawyer and nascent gold miner. He is the catalyst by which the twelve slowly reveal their stories. Their individual knowledge is fragmentary, but their combined is more illuminative. It takes almost half the book to hear these stories. The twelve are all men, consisting of a chemist, a Maori, two Chinese, a newspaper editor, a hotelier, a magnate, a commission merchant, a shipping agent, a courthouse clerk, a banker, and a chaplain.
This is what propels them to meet. On a certain night, three things happen: a hermit is found dead in his cabin, a prostitute is found insensible on a mining road, and a young miner is missing. Are these events related? “A string of coincidences cannot be a coincidence,” says one of the characters. And so the twelve pool their information and puzzle out a story that leaves new questions in its wake.
“But onward also rolls the outer sphere — the boundless present, which contains the bounded past,” Catton says. Thus, after an admirable, concise, and probably ironic summing up of the information produced by the twelve to end the first part of the book, a good deal of the rest of the book reveals past events.
I am in awe of Catton’s ability to create such a novel. Such a novel novel, no less. She sets the tone in homage of books of the Victorian era but with more concision (if that can be said of an 800-page book) than those authors would. Reading this book is less like trying to solve a mystery along with the author than trying to put together an 800-piece puzzle. At the end, it’s still possible to wonder whether after the puzzle is compiled, if it isn’t the backside of the picture that has been revealed.
Eleanor Catton won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for this book.