Luminaries

Wow – they (reviewers, other booksellers, Man Booker Prize – longlist at this stage but still – judges) are all right: The Luminaries (Victoria University Press, available in paperback and hardcover) by New Zealand author Eleanor Catton is just fantastic! It is 832 pages long and I am about a third of the way through and cannot wait to find out what happens next.

So far, in what sounds like the start of a bad joke, a man walks into a bar in Hokitika, where 12 other men have gathered for secret conference. It is 1866, the West Coast gold rush is underway and the typical West Coast rain is pouring down. The story of what has been happening in the region over the last couple of weeks: mysterious death! attempted suicide! political campaigning! surprise piles of gold! the consequences of which the 12 men are variously attempting to exploit or escape or implicate each other in, gradually emerges.
It is an intriguing, clever plot, with the occasional undercurrent of humour, especially as the machinations to entangle rivals, partners and friends in whatever is going on, get more fevered and desperate. The evocation of the natural beauties and dangers of the West Coast is masterly. Descriptions of ships having to cross the ever-shifting bar at the mouth of the harbour (still a danger today), the always dripping, dark green rain forests encircling tiny colonial Hokitika, and the struggle of trying to live and work in such an environment using the technologies and materials of the time,  vividly conjure the landscape before your mind’s eye.
Inhabiting this landscape are a cast of vital and realistically peculiar and particular characters that draw you in, inveigle you into their world and make you believe in it, and them. There is a sense of people and events circling and orbiting each other, weaving in and about, maintaining their own busy revolutions while becoming part of greater schemes, of wheels turning within wheels…

There are strands of the New Zealand Gothic literary tradition, a pinch of that excellent TV show Deadwood, a link to astrological signs and the constellations that at the moment escapes me, and an exciting something else: a writerly voice altogether Catton’s own.
I am looking forward to the secrets and stories concealed and revealed in the next 500 pages…

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