The story begins when twelve men, representing the twelve zodiac signs, organize a secret meeting at the Crown Hotel. They want to discuss the events that took place in their small town of Hokitika. On the 14th January 1866, Crosbie Wells, a hermit, is discovered dead in his home on the Arahura river. On the same night, Anna Wetherell, the local whore, is found inanimate on Christchurch Road and Emery Staines, the local mogul, is reported missing. What happened and what link can exist between these three different people? Walter Moody, a Scottish who just arrived to this New Zealand coastal town to take part to the gold rush, stumbles by inadvertence into the meeting and is brought into the confidence.
Catton takes her time to set up the scene which explains why the book is so long. All the initial events that took place between the 14th January and the meeting on the 27th January are told to Walter by fragments, with each man offering its own opinion and version of the events they witnessed. As their truth is subjective, the reader is given a lot of information about each man history and moral character. Once this first part is done, Catton gives us new information about the six suspects and victims, each one of them being associated to heavenly bodies within the solar system. While the investigation progresses and we (the reader/Walter) begin to understand what happened, fragments of the past are revealed with some events taking place as early as 1839.
The structure is so massively convoluted that I could not read at my usual pace (100 pages/hour). Hardly have I ever read a more complex book. On the one hand, I am amazed by the genius of the writer, who has linked each character with a zodiacal sign and has also structured the story timeline based on the position of the different bodies on the dates the intrigue took place. I can't even fathom the amount of work it took her to put together all the elements. On the other hand, I am also baffled by such a complexity. Do we really need that elaborate structure to pursue this investigation? While I admire The Luminaries as a masterful work from a very gifted writer, the book will not remain committed to my memory. I enjoyed the reading. But, I lament the fact that such a multi layered structure gets in the way of experiencing a true emotion towards the story and the characters.
Authr: Eleanor Catton
Publisher: Victoria University Press
The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize 2013.