The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

It is not often I indulge in a Booker Prize winner yet the theme of this caught my eye and a few pages in I realised it was a mystery, bound in an enigma, caught in a puzzle. Those readers who love a good "whodunit", then this is of that ilk; yet, with that plot it is written in a manner that has echoes of Arthur Conan Doyle, it navigates precisely through the labyrinth of a Victorian-era New Zealand with a tenacity that has a style at once of a reporter, of a sleuth, and of a pseudo-arcane mystic.

It will be difficult to review this book without some spoilers, for that I apologize, and cease reading now if you are a lover of cryptic storylines. However, I shall limit them to as little impact as possible.

Eleanor Catton's novel, given her youth, is extraordinary. It commences in a tawdry room on a rain lashed, dark night with the arrival in Hokitia of one Walter Moody. The author sets the tone of her narrative quickly: heavy on description, both physical and character, perturbed in tone, curious in ear. He has come across a séance of men, a gathering of interested parties, a conclave of hubris; maybe, even, a smoking party after a Last Supper. For the first half of this long novel Walter hears the tales from each of the men, leading us to why they are gathered in that place. The author capably shows us how half-heard truths, mistranslations, partial information, flawed personalities... all can lead to a story that, as Reverend Devlin Cowell puts it so very late in the text:
"never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person's point of view."

It is precisely this that is the technical pivot of the novel; for without it the affair in Hokitia would be as bright and gleaming as the nuggets of gold that are the cause of so much intrigue, murder, despair, reconciliation, failed dreams.

I confess about a third of the way in I started to make a note of all the characters, fearful of becoming lost in the turns of the narrative; fortuitously I discovered that the author gives a conclusion to the events that led to the meeting on January 16 by the time we are mid-novel. As I looked around the characters of Aubert Gascoigne (Magistrate's Clerk), Edgar Clinch (landlord of the Gridiron Hotel), Dick Mannering (owner of "The Princes of Wales Opera House" and various claims), Thomas Balfour (shipping magnate), Reverend Devlin Cowell, Te Rau Tauwhare (Maori friend of Crosbie Wells), Charlie Frost (banker), Joseph Pritchard (local drug emporium owner), Harald Nilssen (commissioning merchant), Benjamin Lowenthal (Jewish editor of "The West Coast Times"), Quee Long (lone worker on the Aurora mine) and lastly (but not least), Sook Yongsheng (operator of the Kaniere opium den) - all of whom were gathered to discuss both the bizarre death of Crosbie Wells, a "hermit" found dead in his house at Arahura Valley, the disappearance of Emery Staines who was the "richest man in town, the fate of Anna Wetherell, a prized whore with Aurora mine stamped gold nuggets sewn in the seam of her dresses, and the strange comings and goings of the barque Godspeed with its villain of a Captain Carver - I saw how the author had based her novel around the concepts of greed, social placement, curiosity and (inevitably in such a small frontier town), six degrees of separation.

What follows would not be out of place in a Dickens novel as we work through the plots of all those named above plus Lydia Wells and George Shepard. We have multiple Magwiches, several Pips, a Nancy... with the supporting characters and ambiance you'd expect. What was a delight was Eleanor Catton's dalliance with Victor Hugo. For those who have read his epic tomes, he is much given over to lengthy asides, philosophizing at whim on any topic of the day. Whilst the author has not written a novel to compare with something like "Les Miserables", she does neatly indulge in such asides, giving us interesting and thought-provoking monologues on topics such as:

On prayer: "The prayerful man, the good man, is always hopeful; he is always an optimist. A man is made hopeful by his prayers."
On digger's law: "when the savage meets the civil."
On whoring:- "a whore cannot become respectable. A whore cannot become rich. All the prestige and the profit belong to the whoremonger, never to the whore."
On judgement: "For although a man is judged by his actions, by what he has said and done, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done - a judgement that is necessarily hampered, not only by the scope and limits of his imagination, but by the ever changing measures of his doubt and self-esteem."
On welfare: "Welfare is the very proof of civilization - it is its finest proof, indeed!"
On love: "new lovers would do little more than call to mind the old, and one would be forced to wander, lost, in that reflective maze of endless comparison, forever disappointed, forever turning back."

By the end of the novel I was sated and I applaud this Canadian/New Zealander on what she has achieved. It was a novel that made me think, entertained me, encouraged my love of "whodunits", educated me about an obverse Victorian society in New Zealand. Out of all of it though came one hard memory of what the novel is all about...
"an assembly of innocent men - not of schemers, or conspirators, or felons of any kind. / You'll find a fair clutch of men have come out of this business feeling like there's someone to blame."

Yes indeed. There is someone to blame. Enjoy finding out whom.

10/10 A mystery, bound in an enigma, caught in a puzzle.

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