Without having read any of the novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year, I’m confident that The Luminaries deserved to win the coveted prize. It is a unique novel that is hard to describe: it is simple, yet complex; straightforward, yet complicated.
The year is 1866, and the place is a small gold mining town in New Zealand. On a rainy night, Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika after a very disturbing sea voyage, checks in to a hotel, and later finds himself in the company of 12 seemingly random men at the hotel’s smoking room. Being a newcomer in town, he is unaware of the set of events that happened a fortnight prior to his arrival – the attempted suicide of a whore, the death of a hermit, the arrival of a politician, and the disappearance of the town’s richest man – events that prompted the 12 men, some of whom were strangers to each other, to gather on that fateful night at the smoking room of the Crown Hotel.
Despite Walter Moody’s accidental interruption of the gathering, he is reluctantly welcomed by the group at the Crown Hotel. Slowly, and in an almost roundabout sort of way, he learns about the events of 2 weeks prior through the disjointed tales of each of the 12 men, who, from their relationships and interactions with the whore, the hermit, the politician, and the rich man, held different pieces of the puzzle needed to complete the picture and shed some light on the seemingly unrelated events.
The tale that emerges is an incredible one – of greed, deceit, conspiracy, revenge, murder, pride, love, lust, betrayal, destiny, mystery, the occult, the supernatural, and of course, of gold and riches.
What sets The Luminaries apart from other novels isn’t its plot, which is essentially a Victorian mystery, with a love and ghost story thrown in for good measure, but its wonderfully complex style of storytelling – the novel is like an intricate web with each character providing a thread that is important by itself, yet part of, and essential to the whole.
The structure of the novel is also an interesting curiosity. For reasons unknown to me, the author chose to incorporate zodiac signs, planetary movements, and astral maps with the characters and events of the novel. Just as there are 12 signs in the zodiac, there are also 12 men in the hotel smoking room, and 12 parts to the novel, each longer than the next.
I must admit that the astrological references that make up a big part of this novel are completely lost on me, and the title itself, The Luminaries, holds no other meaning for me except perhaps to represent the 12 men who gathered to illuminate, or shed some light on the mysterious events of the novel. The “luminaries”, on the other hand, could also be the 2 important characters in the novel which seem to be polar opposites of each other, like the sun and moon, known as the luminaries in astrology.
Despite my ignorance of its astrological references, I still very much enjoyed this novel and its incredibly compelling style of storytelling, and despite its length, this novel does a magnificent job in holding its readers’ attention by being interesting and mysterious all the way to the very end. Despite its heft, The Luminaries is the kind of book that is very hard to put down once started.
The Luminaries (2013) – Eleanor Catton
Victoria University Press; 834 pages
Personal rating: 4.5/5