I’ve had this author-signed copy of The Luminaries, winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize on my bookshelf waiting to be read for a couple of years. At 823 pages long, I knew it was going to take me out for a couple of months. It is a gothic Victorian novel in the style of those monster classics from the past that were often written as serials and thus not so constrained by length.
Caton has created a historical novel in every sense – the omniscient narrator who talks directly to the reader, the ornate but very readable language, the diversions down character side tracks, and the setting – the New Zealand gold fields in the 1860s.
The story starts with a gathering of twelve men in a room of the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, a gold rush town in the South Island. They are all concerned with the same series of events, but interested for different reasons – the death of a hermit in his isolated cabin, the apparent suicide attempt of a prostitute, the disappearance of a young prospector and a lost fortune in pure gold.
Each of the men moves forward from this meeting to try and work out what has happened as per their own particular interest. But then the story jumps back a year to show how the various players, including the prostitute and another mysterious woman, have arrived at their various positions.
Caton takes plenty of time to explore the background and characters as she moves through the story, in a way that is often discouraged in contemporary fiction as the dreaded ‘backstory dump’. But I enjoyed reading these characters’ stories and it makes them more rounded and interesting. The description of life in a gold town and the clothes, people, businesses and workings were all vividly brought to life. There was one line I particularly liked that summed up how and why people were so attracted to travelling to the other side of the world to hunt for gold –
“A homeward bounder (a strike big enough to allow the prospector to go home) is a chance for total reinvention, Mr Nilssen,” he said at last. “Find a nugget, and a man can buy his own life. That kind of promise isn’t offered in the civil world.”
That to me seems such a brilliant encapsulation of what drove the settlement and development of both Australia and New Zealand.
Early on, I did notice the absence of female characters but later the two women who are really pivotal to the story became more prominent and interesting. This really is an ensemble story – there’s no clear protagonist to attach to and it takes a while to get used to following different characters through different facets of the story. Helpfully there’s a list of characters at the start, all of whom are grouped as astrological concepts. Astrological charts are given at the start of each section and I must admit this aspect didn’t interest me at all and I made little effort to work out what they might have meant.
Not surprisingly for its length, there are a lot of elements making for a very complex plot and I found myself struggling to keep all of them in my head at once, particularly when the story started backtracking to explain how events had unfolded.
This is an absorbing mystery that ignores most of the main twenty-first century novel conventions. But it is rich in detail and tension and if you can stay the distance, it is well worth the journey.