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Review: The Luminaries

I don’t even know how to start this review. Reading The Luminaries has been like an elephant’s pregnancy; it was long, trying, but thoroughly satisfying. As many know, the author Eleanor Catton was the youngest person to ever win the Man Booker Prize for this book this past year. I had been meaning to read it for the longest time but mustering up the energy to read a doorstopper was challenging. But it is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in a while.

The Luminaries takes place in mid-19th century New Zealand during the gold rush. It tells the story of a council of 12 men (one for each Horoscope) who come together to try to solve a series of crimes and mysteries that takes place in a small prospecting town called Hokitika. There’s a death, a disappearance, and a lot of manipulation, extortion, and stolen gold.

It’s told from the omniscient narration of Walter Moody, who comes to find out through the council that a large fortune of gold was discovered in the house of a recently deceased hermit Crosbie Wells. The night of his death happened in concurrence with the supposed suicide of an opium-addicted prostitute named Anna Wetherell and the disappearance of young, wealthy prospector, Emery Staines. At the centre of the mystery is the antagonist Francis Carver, who not only extorts his way to become the captain of a ship and steals Crosbie Well's identity, but is also the sworn enemy of a Chinese indentured servant, Ah Sook. There is somewhat of a love story between two characters but it's difficult to give a damn about sappy shit when there are so many things going on. Everything unravels, as they say, and everyone is embroiled into crimes and their morals are tested.

The title of the book comes from the astrological element she brings into the story. She uses this to construct the character charts and the concept of destiny, or luck. I personally share the same sign with the angry and violent chemist (aka opium dealer) in the book so I don’t know how to feel about that.   

In terms of writing style, I have to say that Eleanor Catton is probably one of the most talented people on the planet. Her genius cannot be overstated. Her mastery of 19th century language, as I imagine, is spot on and her character studies are so psychologically detailed that you’re completely attached to every single one by the end of the book, and there are a lot (it’s always unsettling when there’s a character list in the front pages). The plot itself is endlessly interesting; readers aren’t treated like bricks and are challenged to dissect the mystery themselves as it slowly unravels.

  Eleanor Catton

Eleanor Catton

But like Dickens, which her work has been paralleled to, it does drag in some parts, especially mid-way. The book’s divided into 12 parts and the first part takes up about 400 out of 800-something pages. Catton mainly gets through the first part of the book with back-and-forth conversations (or tête-à-tête) between two characters, which becomes a bit monotonous. The second half seemed to speed by, once the narration begins to take place in present time.

The only real complaint I have about the book is that it left a few unanswered questions, which I personally felt like I deserved having read a pretty hefty book with so many 'I need to put this down and think' moments. For the most part, the big questions were answered but many elements were still left out. I almost feels like the first half didn’t know when to stop and the second half stopped too soon.

For anyone who loves historical fiction will love The Luminaries; there are also interesting things that can be read for people interested in gender or race studies. (i.e. the villainous, overly-charming, con-artist female vs. the weak, impressionable, forced-into-sex-work female or the pushover discriminated Chinese immigrant vs. the strong-headed, revenge-seeking, and discriminated Chinese immigrant). Although I think most people like myself need to take it slow with this one, The Luminaries is definitely a must-read.