Twelve men gather in secret to discuss a series of mysterious, unexplained events that link their fates together like beads on a string. The gathering is disturbed, however, by a thirteenth man who has recently stepped onto New Zealand soil; aiming, like everyone else, to get a fair share in the gold rush. As these thirteen men start to narrate their experiences, a story emerges. A story which is intriguing and opium-laced and scandalous, involving broken dreams, a murder, a disappearance and an accumulation of a series of unfortunate events, some induced and others serendipitous.
A reclusive man (hermit?) has been murdered, a large unaccounted treasure is found, a young and wealthy entrepreneur has disappeared and a whore has attempted to commit suicide.
The Man Booker Prize Winner 2013 forces you to take it seriously when you’re past the first page. Eight hundred-odd pages thick, it is quite an intricate ride with an arcane approach towards chapter titles and pleasant descriptions (the first paragraph itself, for example, talks about frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, twill...). Miss Catton does justice to her nineteenth century New Zealand where gold dust made dreams just as fast as it destroyed them, women were few and far between and the slightest excitement caught the imagination of the whole town. Miss Catton has also done her research because she has painted a colorful, detailed picture when it comes to relationships, individuals and places.
The Luminaries is many things but the true nature of its plot is rather slow to unravel. The first half of the book is a narrative of the stories of the twelve-plus-one men who have gathered to discuss the scope of the clandestine incidents they have witnessed or borne. These stories are revealed in a gripping manner and clutch you as you start to understand the many threads that are woven into the narratives. This first half of The Luminaries was its most interesting part, which is good in a way I suppose, because afterwards you cannot stop yourself from reading forward.
After the men have discussed their stories, we still do not have enough to piece together the mysteries and so the crowd disperses but over the course of the next few months, the mystery plays out and the missing pieces are found. That’s quite all right but the problem is the way the writing of a book with such tremendous scope seems to appear partly disjointed and the psyches of the characters do not get the justice they deserve.
The undue emphasis given to drawing parallels with the patterns of the night sky makes little sense, as do the astrological references. It seems to me as though the patterns of the sky are as absurd a notion for Miss Catton to depend upon as is the seance and afterlife communication the book so easily mocks.
However, I am only forced to offer this judgment because the first half of the book raised my expectations sky-high but the last one-fifth of it in particular, brought then crashing down. In order to maintain the ‘pattern’, the narration seemed to suffer and the characters are not as fully explored, as their potential earlier seems to suggest. It is, infact, weird how jarred the story becomes towards the end. Like the waning moon, subsequent sections of the book turn half in size, until the very last section is one page thin and contains more description than action.
But I would still recommend it because it is a page-turner, despite its downside. At its heart, The Luminaries is a love story and the rest of the mystery revolves around that aspect.
Read for beautiful descriptions, colorful characters. Read for Hokitika, for undisclosed relationships and hidden agendas. Read for secret letters and misplaced bullets. Read for opium-laced incidents and a well-described seance. Read for cunning characters and innocent ones and reasonable ones and boisterous ones and selfish ones and self-destructive ones and unfailingly optimistic ones.