Finishing some oversized books can be a chore. Other books are so outsized that getting to that last page requires exertion. But then there are the rare heavyweights that turn getting to the end into achievement.
Such is the case with the winner of the prestigious 2013 Man Book Prize, Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries (Granta, London, 2013, 832 pages). Not only is it over 800 pages long, it weighs almost two pounds—in paperback.
Just starting the “The Luminaries” is quite challenging—but intriguing. The year is 1866, and a man named Walter Moody has just arrived in a tiny gold rush town of Hokitika in New Zealand. Moody walks into the smoking room of the Crown Hotel and crashes a hushed meeting of 12 men, promptly finding himself in the mysterious death of a mysterious hermit named Crosbie Wells, a death that involves a fortune in gold hidden in a most unusual place, a man gone missing, swindles, a temperamental prostitute, a superstitious widow, a menacing seaman and much more.
As “The Luminaries” unfolds, the reader will meet a solar system of people. Some are rich, greedy and hold secrets. Others just want to know the truth. Each one is described and discussed at length in turn. Just their names vibrate with purpose: shipping agent Thomas Balfour, chemist Joseph Pritchard, shady businessman Dick Mannering, chaplain Cowell Devlin, banker Charlie Frost, merchant Harald Nilssen, a Maori named Te Rau, a Chinaman named Ah Sook, courthouse clerk Aubert Gascoigne, among others. Each is different, but all involved. But then, suddenly, “The Luminaries” pitches in a completely different direction, toward a controversial séance, of all things, and people’s pasts are uncovered, with a courtroom drama thrown in. Almost the entire third act of “The Luminaries” is told in flashback. The chapters begin to shift, from dense to abruptly short near the end. The truths turn and twist completely more than once.
At its sizable and substantial heart, “The Luminaries” is a murder mystery, and the novel is propelled forward by the need to know who did it and how. Like the reader, one of the characters “always sought the hidden motive, the underlying truth: conspiracy enthralled him. He formed convictions as other men formed dependencies—a belief for him was as a thirst—and he fed his own convictions with all the erotic fervor of the willingly confirmed.”
“The Luminaries” has a lot of moving parts, but it isn’t an epic. Instead, it’s an expansive series of small, intimate surprises that all add up. It’s a magnificent puzzle with seemingly endless pieces—but not for the impatient.
The New Zealand native author of 2008’s “The Rehearsal,” Catton sets each chapter with an astronomical occurrence—indeed, so the characters seem to be set as well.
Moody attempts to put together all the disparate discoveries of the individual characters. The reader then becomes privy to the facts. There are also the obscured matters of love, debts, family, race, class and opium.
“I know the secret of Crosbie Wells,” a surprising character blurts out, but it remains to the reader to figure out if he’s right or telling the truth. “Someone else is behind this,” someone else says. “It is excessively strange,” says another.
At 28, the prodigy Catton is the youngest ever recipient of the Man Booker Prize. It takes so much and so long to actually finish reading the twist-laden “The Luminaries” that it feels so rewarding to finally find out who’s behind it all. Either through outright deception or unfortunate miscommunication, we find vengeance and simplest motivations exist in the most hidden places in Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries”: “We were of our own making, and we shall be our own end.”
Available in paperback at National Book Store.