When people say this book is a masterpiece I can only agree.
Title: The Luminaries
Author: Eleanor Catton
Publisher: Granta Books
Publication Date: 2013
Genre: Historical fiction
Page Count: 848
This year on bookstagram I am co-hosting a big books book club called the #abouttome book club (because it is about time those tomes were off our tbrs)! Each month we are reading a book of 500 plus pages. Last month the book club pick was this sumptuous but intimidatingly sized man booker prize winner. I can understand why people might not get on with this novel. It is a tricky read which requires a great deal of time and concentration but I was blown away by Catton’s skill at weaving such an intricately detailed and strangely addictive story.
You often hear the saying ‘the plot thickens’, well, within Catton’s novel the plot well and truly does thicken and not only that; the plot constantly splits and amalgamates adding different nuances with each chapter. Just like floating upon a meandering river, the reader is swept along by the slow-paced narrative. However, there are several undercurrents so subtle that you don’t immediately realise they are there until Catton decides to reveal things at a later point.
Written in the style of a Victorian sensation novel, each chapter is preceded by a short summary reflecting the format of a serialised novel. Set in New Zealand during the 1860s gold rush the book opens with a series of mysterious events that have transpired on a January night. A man dies in his house leaving behind a fortune in pure gold that nobody knew he had, a young investor vanishes without a trace, and a local prostitute is thought to have attempted to commit suicide. Twelve men find themselves implicated and meet in a deserted bar to discuss the events. However, this is not your typical murder mystery.
In the first section of the novel, the reader is confronted with the events of that January night from the perspectives of each of the twelve men gathered in the bar. This takes almost four hundred pages! The subsequent sections reveal events as they unfold for the next few weeks, again from the perspectives of all involved. To do this Catton deploys an omniscient third-person narrator which dips in and out of the perspectives of all of the characters. Therefore, at times the book can be difficult to follow especially as the narrative flicks backwards and forwards in time whilst weaving in and out of the multiple perspectives. Although I found this structure to be difficult at the start, the further in I got I found that each segment reveals connections between the characters and adds another level of detail which I found to be really satisfying. You think you finally know what has happened but then in the next segment you see events from another character’s perspective and you are back to square one again!
Astrology plays an important part in this novel. Each character is aligned with a different astrological sign which impacts how they react to events and other characters. Additionally, each chapter title reveals changes in the positioning of the planets which in turn impacts the decisions of the characters in different ways. Not knowing much about astrology most of this was lost on me, unfortunately. But the sense that their lives, actions and past has been influenced by something much bigger, something akin to fate was not.
In addition to the twelve men in the bar, there are several additional characters which also have a huge impact upon events so the cast of characters is fairly large. However, not all of the characters were developed equally. Whilst you get a great deal of insight into the backstories of some of the characters others seemed very much on the periphery even though they had important roles within the novel. Additionally, only two of the central characters were women so it is a very male-centric novel. Obviously, this is partly due to the setting but seeing as the majority of the action takes place in a town I would assume that there would have been more than two women there.
Overall, I think this book would be perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry or anyone who loves to solve a mystery. However, just as a river does not naturally stop abruptly with a definitive ending this book does leave some things unanswered. So if you enjoy things to be completely tied up then you may be slightly disappointed.