For some reason, in recent years I’ve enjoyed reading Booker Prize losers more than the winners so I had wavered for a long time over whether to read Eleanor Catton’s 2013 winning novel, The Luminaries. I’d picked up and put down copies in book shops several times, put off partly by its heft (it is apparently the longest ever Booker winner), partly by the spectre of the last New Zealand winner (Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, which is reputed to be nearly unreadable, I’ve not attempted it) and partly by how dreadful I found the last historical novel prize winner I read (Wolf Hall). In the end, spotting it for sale at £2.99 on the Kindle store I felt I could at least avoid the first of these misgivings.
I needn’t have worried. The Luminaries is a great read. It is set in 1865 in the New Zealand gold rush town of Hokitika. It starts as a sort of Victorian murder mystery with a dozen disparate men gathering in the bar of a hotel when an uninvited 13th man, Walter Moody joins them after having just arrived following a disturbing and rough sea trip from Dunedin. In sounding him out, the twelve share the tale of the disappearance of a wealthy young prospector, the death of local loner (and the finding of a large amount of gold in his hut), and the opium overdose of a prostitute all on the same night. Each of the twelve was a witness to part of the story and each felt that somehow they could be implicated criminally even though no crime had yet been alleged. As they share their stories each (apart from two Chinese miners whose English is inadequate for the task) pieces part of the mystery together. The book then goes on to show what each does with this knowledge and goes back to account for the events that led up to the mystery.
The book’s chapters are each headed up with an astrological sign and apparently the structure of the book is driven by the interaction of the zodiac symbols and the phases of the moon. To be honest, this passed me by completely and while it would have taken a lot of skill to effect, seemed rather gratuitous. Much of the intrigue comes from apparent coincidences and unsuspected connections between characters and their histories so I suppose this is not unlike the coincidental motion of the planets and constellations in astrology. However, the plot and characterisation are strong enough not to need a theoretical exoskeleton to tie them together. Perhaps the book wouldn’t have appealed to the Booker judges and critics without it but it felt like an unnecessary layer of pretension.
Read the book and see for yourself – perhaps the fault is mine in reading on a screen as there have been numerous articles recently to the effect that readers may read less deeply in eBooks than they do in paper books.