The Luminaries Book Review

Unfortunately I had not read any of the previous works by Eleanor Catton, and purchased the book on a whim (not in half directed by the gloriously inky-blue cover), hoping for a book that would transport me away from the mundane act of studying.

The Luminaries is foremost a complex web of human relationships and intrigue, secondly a commentary on, and wonderful description of the 19th century New Zealand gold rush community. The excitement and ups-and-downs of the characters financial situations from the goldfields bring theatricality to the plot, which revolves (like the moon, again a cover reference) around 12 characters. In fact, in the ‘note to the reader’ at the beginning of the book, the author mocks the current zodiacal system, saying that all signs are moved by one cycle forward, unlike what is now widely recognised. This attention to detail and historical backstory is what I personally found most thrilling in the book, as the characters (I aim to give no spoilers) do not amount to give the reader any kind of moral or intellectual lesson in the end, staying as wonderfully descriptive and wholly un-relatable to the modern reader as in the first page.

From the very first line, introducing the reader to the town of Hokitika, there is a sense of writing similar to those of Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes. This may seem like a far stretch for historical fiction, however the jumbled, misaligned, yet so clearly defined characters have every much as a big a role to play in this book as with, for example, with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Their conversations and inner thoughts are what make the book so interesting and ambitious. The theatricality of the descriptions, as with the character of Mr. Moody whose “hair inclined to a tight curl; it had fallen in ringlets to his shoulders in his youth, but now he wore it close against his skull, parted on the side and combed flat with a sweet-smelling pomade that darkened its golden hue to an oily brown”, resembles closely to the way Christie described Poirot when him and his famous ‘moustaches’ are first introduced. This old-fashioned style and attention to detail is what makes the gradually unravelling, tightly bound plot seem charming, and dated.

Yes of course, there is a murder, and the characters are all shifty as can be, and yet we love them in the same way that we love Poirot- for his affectations, and his complete seclusion from the real world. As we follow the characters around in the town, visiting neighbours, making deals and bargaining for their innocence, and gradually getting to the bottom of the gold nugget mysteries that brought them together, the storyline actually shortens, in the same way that the moon wanes as the time passes, and the account descriptions at the beginning of each chapter lengthen. This may seem like a strange way to write, to go from the most descriptive to a last chapter with only a few lines of dialogue, however it is still as enthralling a journey, even if it does seem to go the other way than it should. It may be very long, and thoroughly descriptive, however this has got to be the most compelling and exciting read of this year.

Published in ‘The Courier’ 2016, for Newcastle University.

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