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What We’re Reading: The Luminaries

Post by Bethany Latham
Posted December 27, 2013 in NoveList Bookshelf, Readers' Advisory News

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The Luminaries

by Eleanor Catton

It isn’t often I come across a novel that’s a game-changer – inventive, impressive, unique. The Luminaries is such a novel; it’s meticulously constructed and perfect in the execution of its conceit. Shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker prize, The Luminaries is a tale of the 1860s New Zealand gold rush that’s couched as a Victorian pastiche, as if Moby Dick and a sensation novel got together and had The Luminaries as an offspring. The novel uses astrology as its framework: it features 12 characters whose personalities correspond to astrological signs, 7 planetary characters, and one terrestrial character around whom everyone else revolves. As complicated as this “literary” work may sound, it’s also fantastically and compulsively readable – and that’s not a combination one often finds.

Young Walter Moody, seeking his fortune in the goldfields, disembarks at the Hokitika quay, unnerved by something he thinks he saw onboard ship. At his hotel, he stumbles upon a secret meeting of 12 men who’ve come together to solve a mystery. A local prostitute has been found insensate in the road; an attempted suicide, or was she poisoned? The same night, the town’s wealthiest man disappears, and a supposedly penniless prospector is found dead in his ramshackle cabin – with a fortune in gold stashed in every available crevice. The changeable New Zealand landscape is skilfully evoked, and the characters, including and especially minorities (eg, the Maori and Chinese) are drawn with depth and exquisite clarity. The Victorian prose style features a lofty “we” authorial voice – the perfect choice to give the reader a bird’s eye view so she can keep all the myriad plot strokes straight by viewing the picture from above. The circular narrative mirrors the revolution of the earth on its axis and the planets around the sun – coming full circle, exploring every aspect of the mystery, returning to its beginning, and completely satisfying the reader. Recommended by Bethany Latham.