Books Magazine

The Luminaries

By Drharrietd @drharrietd

73.Eleanor Catton-The Luminaries

Let me say at once that I absolutely loved this novel, all 832 pages of it. Except that there were no pages because I was listening to it as an audio book, so all 29 hours and 14 minutes of it. I listened in bed, in the car, cooking the lunch, waiting for my appointment with the osteopath, in the bath, and more besides. 

So much has been said about The Luminaries, and it is so extremely full and complex, that it's hard to know where to begin. It was, without doubt, the perfect novel for me to be reading, because not only did it satisfy the craving for great baggy monsters that I'd developed after several months of Trollope, but it also provided the exact kind of plot that I really love -- lots and lots and lots of mysteries, the unravelling of which didn't even begin until about half way through the novel. 

Of course the comparison with Trollope doesn't end with the length, for this is what is sometimes, rather disparagingly, referred to as a cod Victorian novel. There are summaries at the start of each chapter - In which a stranger arrives...,  In which Quee Long makes a complaint before the law...and so on. There are characters with Dickensian names -- Moody, Clinch, Frost, Carver. The novel's narrative voice could be Dickens, or Trollope, or Wilkie Collins. But you're not going to read it for that, although it adds to the pleasure.  

The novel begins with the arrival of a young Scotsman, Walter Moody, in the small New Zealand town of Hokitika. It's the 1860s, and the gold rush is in full swing, with huge fortunes to be made by the assiduous and lucky. The town has attracted people from all over the world -- mostly Europeans, but also a fair smattering of Chinese. The Maoris are still there too, of course, though they are not interested in gold, just in the rare jade that can be found on their own land. Indeed, a fair cross section of these people is stumbled upon by Moody when, just off the ship, he takes shelter in a nearby hotel and finds a conference of twelve men discussing some pressing issues, including the disappearance of a wealthly young man, the suicide attempt of an opium-addicted whore, a missing fortune in gold, and the sudden death of a drunken recluse. Each man knows the answer to a part of the puzzle, but no one knows the whole of it. So for at least half the novel, we get to hear everyone's side of the story -- but even then, we are none the wiser. In fact it is not really until the final few (tiny) chapters that the whole story finally emerges.

Fascinatingly, though the twelve men plus Moody all have their part to play, none of them is central to the story. Truly, at the center of everything, is the whore Anna Wetherall, though she herself is a mystery for a long time. Associated with her and her story are Emery Staines, a beautiful, naive, romantic young man, whose disappearance has caused great consternation; the clever, ruthless madam Lydia Wells; Lydia's lover the vicious desperado sea captain Francis Carver; and the sad, good-hearted drunk Crosbie Wells, father of the child Anna so tragically miscarries. 

Where did the gold that was sewn into Anna's dress come from? Where has Emery gone, was he really shot, and if so, who by? Will Crosbie's legitimate half-brother ever respond to his letters? What is the powerful psychic link between Anna and Emery? And will the lovers ever be reunited?

The richness of all this, the wonderfully evoked historical background, the complexity of the puzzles and of the relations betwen the characters, all make this a truly remarkable read. And I hope I'm not giving too much away when I say that it is an essentially optimistic book -- the bad get punished and the good get rewarded, family breaches get mended, and we are given hope that those we have come to love are going to live happily ever after.

As for listening to this rather than reading it -- well, I was amazed by the skill of the reader, Mark Meadows, and the way he was able to differentiate so completely between all the many and disparate characters. I'm addicted to audiobooks and so was delighted to have such a great one to listen to. But now I want a paper copy -- in fact if I had one here today I think I'd start reading it immediately. I want to flip back and forth, follow up leads, puzzle over the astrological stuff at the start of each chapter, and just hold the thing in my hands. So I expect I'll get hold of one before too long.

Luckily my withdrawal symptoms were immediately eased by the fact that I've now started listening to Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and am already blown away by that as well. All very exciting. 


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