The Luminaries is a big book that requires a lot of you attention. So let me preface this review by saying that you should absolutely read The Luminaries. An easy read? No. But a very rewarding one.
The plot is fairly straight-forward and, like so many things, borrows heavily, knowingly and jestingly from Victorian tradition. The place is New Zealand, the year is 1866. The New Zealand Gold Rush is in full swing in the tiny coastal town of Hokitika. Stranger Walter Moody, hoping to make his fortune, arrives at a hotel and stumbles into a meeting with twelve townsmen. They have come to discuss a series of mysterious crimes around town.
If this all sounds remarkably reminiscent, that is deliberate. Dickensian touches are to be found everywhere in the novel, from the way Catton prefaces the chapters (Chapter Ten: in which…), but also the clear juxtaposition of good and evil, or even the framework story of the stranger coming into town and being told its history. The matter is firmly tongue in cheek, though: the mathematical structure of the chapters is more reminiscent of Laurence Sterne and the use of astrological signs hearkens back to Joyce.
As an English major this is fascinating, but if these technicalities sound off-putting, be advised that there is basically a shaggy-dog story at the back of it – think Man Booker doing The Hangover. It’s too complex to do justice here, but it involves a missing man by the name of Emery Staines, a suicidal, a vanished batch of gold, a shipwreck, a secret half-brother, embezzlement, fraud, racism, sexism, powerplays and a lot of history, all set in a tiny, isolated, male-dominated town. Some of the characters are impossible to like, others impossible to dislike. As the plot continues the novel loses its clearcut Victorian dichotomy, which only made it more enjoyable to me: life is not monochromatic, so it follows that the best novels aren’t either.
I loved The Luminaries for being clever and toying with literary conventions; for its eclectic mix of characters and its masterful deployment of New Zealand history to form the perfect backdrop; but mostly, I loved it because it was fun. You may not think it after the first few pages, but please, press on. It’s worth it.