The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

9781847084316 Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, the doorstop Booker winner set in a New Zealand gold rush town in 1866, begins as several unexplained events – a prostitute trying to kill herself, a rich young man disappearing, a fortune turning up in a dead drunk’s house – have set the tiger among the pigeons. Twelve men meet to pool their knowledge in the quiet back room of an unfashionable hotel: everyone has something to hide, with some secrets graver than others. There’s a lot to take in, and Catton doesn’t treat you like an idiot but doesn’t expect you to retain every teeny piece of the puzzle without a little prompting as you go along either. Just when you are trying to remember what Mannering has over Frost, how Lauderback fits in, what Nilssen’s game is, exactly why Filch is important and how the gold comes into it all, she has a half-sentence recap. At the end of section one, Walter Moody even helpfully muses on what he – and we – know so far. This sounds forced, but Catton weaves it more or less seamlessly into the narrative. Another word about that opening section: when you consider it is 360 pages long with relatively few breaks, and consists essentially of a curious tale told to a stranger (Moody) by a fireside, it is some feat to keep things going. The chapters shorten until they are no more than paragraphs as we speed to a resolution and the narrative shrinks to two points, the luminaries of the title. Everything is connected. Information is withheld and then selectively offered to the reader, multiple viewpoints are considered and revelations snap out of the murk at intervals. In short it’s a lengthy mystery thriller with a couple of attractive post-modern knobs on and not a shaggy dog in sight. So the moral is: if you’re going to write a historical novel that’s hundreds of pages long it is a good idea to have something – an intricate plot, for instance – for the reader to hold onto, rather than simply write the hundreds of pages as if that is enough to hold the attention (and yes, I’m looking at you, AS Byatt). The Luminaries is an ambitious, engrossing, satisfying story.

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