The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries
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The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton

It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.

The Luminaries is an extraordinary piece of fiction. It is full of narrative, linguistic and psychological pleasures, and has a fiendishly clever and original structuring device. Written in pitch-perfect historical register, richly evoking a mid-19th century world of shipping and banking and goldrush boom and bust, it is also a ghost story, and a gripping mystery. It is a thrilling achievement and will confirm for critics and readers that Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament.


Last year we survived another tick of the zodiac, closing the Age of Pisces, and with it the reign of twinship, mirrors and hidden things. But for those caught in a nineteenth-century firmament, such as Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, one might judge fate a better hand than luck.

It’s 1866 in one of the farthest corners of the globe – Hokitika – a gold-rush town on the west coast of New Zealand. Twelve men have sought secret council in the parlour of a decrepit hotel to discuss a coincidence: a whore has been found half-dead in the road, a drunken hermit has died on a fortune, and the wealthiest man in town has vanished. Honesty and loyalties are played off against one another as each man discovers how connected and implicated he is, while an outsider stumbles in to adjudicate, eventually leading a courtroom drama that will have the most rabid readers of detective fiction salivating.

Part One ticks over 360 pages in a bar-room sea of words. Unwashed men drink, smoke and regale, setting in motion the remaining eleven parts like spinning cogs of fortune. Each chapter has its own astrological position within a complex narrative, meticulously plotted with an occasional aside by an unknown narrator. We are never sure who is telling the story, but it doesn’t matter because Catton’s characters talk, and talk and talk, breathing fire, lament and lust into this frontier idiom. Diggers, Chinese and Maori, traverse themes of home, exile and fortune, but it’s Coleridge’s albatross that haunts this ship – luck is a burden to fate, perhaps how love is to tragedy – and this is where readers should be prepared for their soul to be anatomised on an epic voyage that is nothing less than masterly.

Luke May is a freelance reviewer.

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