The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is a book I chose to read on my iPad this winter because its glowing screen can be read against the sparkly backdrop of the the Christmas tree in the corner of the room with no other lights on – if I get up the read when everyone else is asleep. A perfect book for a long winter’s night – 832 pages. Even the title suggests illumination.
The Luminaries is a saga – a story told and repeatedly retold by the myriad characters who lives criss-cross in the 19th century gold rush mining town of Hokitika, in New Zealand. One stormy night, a newcomer named Walter Moody stumbles into the first hotel he sees after suffering through a mind-jarring sea voyage that may have even caused him to see a ghost. Inside the warm hotel, he begins to overhear the secret conversations of 12 men who have come together on that particular night to unravel the secret that joins them. The reader learns a hermit is dead, a whore has overdosed, a young man and a significant fortune is missing and – the resolution to this tale is very, very far away.
The opening chapters of the book are ridiculously long – 40 pages plus. I almost gave up within the first 100 pages. Each chapter begins with a sort of old school italics chapter abstract. Skimming ahead to read a few of these, I quickly realized each of the twelve players would be recounting his own version of the mystery before any plot resolution got underway. I knew before beginning the book that that would be the case. I had read – and agree with the New York Times review that asserts, “It’s a lot of fun, like doing a Charlotte Brontë-themed crossword puzzle while playing chess and Dance Dance Revolution on a Bongo Board. Some readers will delight in the challenge, others may despair.” That, and the fact that the cover of the book, and the zodiac graphics between sections of the book, suggest that the phases of the moon and astrological shifts are Catton’s clever framework for the novel. Let’s just say – that was too much of a challenge for me. Although the chapters get shorter as the book wears on (the final chapters are each just a page), I was eager to see it end. I should have heeded my own promise not to get mixed up in books that require a character chart inside the front cover.
But I pressed on for a number of reasons, and in the end was glad that I did. One – I had read Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal in 2010 and enjoyed it very much. Two – Eleanor Catton is just 28 years old, the winner of the Man Booker Prize and a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. And three – when we were in England this fall, the coolest bookstore we visited , Daunt Books, had a full window display of The Luminaries.
In the end, the luminary construct of the novel was too confusing for me and somehow the literary quilt of the novel was a bit too heavy for comfort. But for a long winter’s night, Catton is an old school story teller and formidable young talent very worthy of your attention.