THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton
I felt a bit apprehensive starting this. Booker Prize Winner...youngest winner ever...won by an NZ-er only once before...1st chapter 364 pages...overblown and varying reviews...would it live up to the hype surrounding it? Would this be 800 pages of reading I wish I hadn't started but felt committed to finishing out of some misguided patriotic allegiance?
Well, I needn't have worried. It was everything I had been led to believe it would be and so much more. A vastly entertaining and rollicking read, full of vivid characters, chock full of complicated and intricate plot lines and threads, twists and turns, dead ends and surprising results.This book really is a wonder to read, and much more than I had initially thought. Having said that, the first 80-odd pages required a couple of read throughs, and I can understand how readers could find themselves struggling a bit to this point. Not a lot happens, a lot of names are bandied about, and there seems very little to hold it altogether.
Persevere my friend, persevere...because suddenly, it just takes off, and the next 200-odd pages are a whirlwind. I found myself getting so confused with who was who, what they were doing, why they were doing it, how they were linked to others and where they were going, I ended up making notes on each of the main characters.It certainly helped and then at the end of this particularly long chapter, there is a 20 page summary of all that has gone before.Whew. But don't read this first, you must start at the beginning...
Actually, I hardly know where to begin with writing about this book. Structured around astrological charts, the twelve signs of the zodiac, and the seven traditional planets, the story is, at its core,about a murder - Crosbie Wells, middle aged miner who somehow and inexplicably is in possession of a vast fortune. How did it get there, who owns it, who will get it. Crosbie is Terra Firma (Earth) - the one unchanging constant through the narrative. The twelve zodiac signs are assigned to twelve men of various occupations and backgrounds who are all associated with the deceased in some way. The remaining six planets - Mars, Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, and Pluto are assigned to a number of other significant characters, and lastly the sun and moon represent two characters who are associated with all the others. Confused yet?
The setting is the Wild West of New Zealand - the South Island gold fields of the 1860s - greed, deception, people escaping their pasts and reinventing themselves, opium, gold, brothels, land grabbing, displacement of indigenous peoples, bribery, blackmail, betrayal, drunkenness and temperance. And from time to time human kindness and decency.
Throughout the book there are astrological references: each of the twelve chapters is precisely one lunar month after the previous chapter, there is an astrological chart at each chapter start, and within each chapter there are sub chapters which have a very brief description about what it contains. Each chapter is also half the length of the previous chapter - weird and bizarre as it all sounds, it truly does work.
This is an awesome book, a huge thing to read, sprawling in its concept, with amazing and beautiful use of the English language. One day I will read it again. So glad I bought my own copy.