First Published: 2013
It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand Goldfields. On the night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.
The Luminaries is one of those books I’ve been picking up and then putting down in bookshops ever since I spotted the hardback. Intrigued by the blurb, daunted by the size, and more than a little wary of that ‘Winner of the Man Booker Prize’ label (I was less than wowwed with the last one of those I read), I always ended up putting it back on the shelf while I waited for the recommendation of someone I actually knew. Well that never came (presumably my friends have not read it for similar reasons!) but, finally, I got sick of always being drawn to the same book so I bit the bullet and bought it. And I’m very glad I did, because it turned out to be utterly brilliant.
It’s a bit slow to start with, with a lot of pages given to the presumed main character, Walter Moody, as he lands in Hokitika, New Zealand, for the first time to seek his fortune and accidentally stumbles across a secret gathering of twelve men in the parlour of his cheap lodgings. The tension and unease in these early pages are palpable, but it was only when the rest of the gathering start to tell their own stories, revealing a complex, tightly plotted web of interconnected events and interactions, that I really got sucked in.
The twelve men, from almost the full spectrum of social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds to be found in a mid-19th century New Zealand goldrush town have all gathered to solve the mystery of the night of the 14th of January; when a rich man disappeared, a prostitute attempted suicide, and a local drunk was found dead, his house full of gold. Each of the men is also implicated in the events and has vested interest for the full truth not to be revealed. Their stories all intertwine, overlap, and sometimes seem to contradict each other but, somewhere in there, they hope that their pooled knowledge will have the answers to what really happened.
The book is masterfully written and tightly plotted as the thirteen characters slowly peel back some of the mysteries surrounding the gold, the prostitute, the brutish Captain Carver, and the estranged widow of the dead drunk who has arrived suddenly to claim the gold herself. It’s a book full of vivid three-dimensional, flawed, and diverse characters (well, the male characters are diverse anyway. There are very few female characters). Everyone is holding something back, the narrators are all unreliable in their different ways, and navigating through the webs of connections, clues, and coincidences to piece the truth together made for such compelling reading that I had real difficulties in putting the book down. And the denouement in part four was gloriously satisfying.
But, and here’s where I’m half-tempted to take away half a star, the book is longer than it needs to be. The story does not stop at its natural ending point but, after the ‘conclusion’, jumps back in time to reveal the build up to the events that have already been uncovered. I won’t say that these chapters were completely unnecessary; they give a further insight into the more enigmatic players – particularly the two central female characters who, for the first half of the book, are only viewed through the lens and perceptions of the male characters. This second half also raises a lot of further doubts and questions for the reader on elements that already seemed solved, only some of which are ever answered and most left open ended, but it felt a bit anticlimactic after everything that had gone before.
The structure of the book: the way each of the twelve ‘sections’ is shorter than the last (to mimic the waning moon) and takes place over the course of a single day a month from the previous ‘section’ to make a year’s cycle, has to be admired as very clever. But ultimately it’s just a bit too clever – sacrificing some of the story at the expense of retaining its structure.
Moody’s introduction and the initial revelations and explanations of the secret gathering take up over 350 pages, and by the end of part two, the reader is over halfway through the book. This shortening of chapters does greatly speed up the pace of the novel as it draws to a close, imbuing it with a sense of quickening pace and urgency but, while cleverly executed, it has its downsides. The early, longer, chapters are by far the more satisfying: exploring the psyche of each character and the long convoluted sequences of events that brought them together. In later sections these meaty chapters are replaced with what are almost vignettes, freeze frame snippets of isolated key events. Sometimes, in fact, what is happening in the later chapters can only be understood by the Victorian-style chapter summaries ‘in which x does y….‘ which become gradually longer and longer as the chapters themselves become shorter until, on the last page, the chapter summary is at least twice as long as the final chapter itself. While it’s a very stylistic approach and the details that omitted do raise some intriguing questions, I found I much preferred the earlier, wordier, and more detailed chapters of the early sections.
The other astrological trappings of the structure; starting each section with the day’s horoscope, and chapters titled after astrological movements, I have to add, did absolutely nothing for me. I don’t know astrological symbolism very well and have no interest in looking it up, and the story works just fine without that knowledge. Having each part take place on a single day, however, worked very well to create a sense of claustrophobia, danger, mystery, and urgency, but the rest was all just gift wrap – pretty bits of nothingness you rip past to get to the present inside.
Overall though a wonderful book and I’m still giving it five stars, despite a few minor reservations about the emphasis of style over story, the story is still amazingly well written with a great cast of characters. The majority of the book is a fantastic page-turner, and even the last chapters, where it loops back around again to the lead up of are only really frustrating because I want more detail.