Updated: Jun 10, 2021
"The Luminaries" by Eleanor Catton is one of my favourite books of all time. It won the 2013 Booker Prize. I recommended it to my dear, dear friend Nat K. Yes the Nat K from Buddy Reads with Nat. Nat has just written an amazing review upon completing it and I quite simply have to post it here.
Review by Nat K.
It was a dark and stormy night…
Well, that’s the premise of the opening chapter. One Walter Moody inadvertently stumbles into the parlour of the Crown Hotel, which is closed that night for a private function. Rain is pouring down. It is a deluge. Twelve men are gathered herein to discuss a matter of the utmost importance and urgency. It would appear that they seem surprised to find one another there. As if this clandestine meeting had not been planned. Mr. Moody is lucky number thirteen. The other men did not expect a stranger to join their ranks, assuming the extreme inclement weather would assure them of secrecy. Walter Moody himself also did not expect to find the parlour filled with men, due to the nature of the weather. Preferring instead to dry off by the fire, nurse a brandy, and be alone with his thoughts…To try to make sense of what he had witnessed on the barque* Godspeed, which has just brought him to these shores.
And so begins over 800 pages of an intriguing, complex novel. Welcome to the goldfields of Hokitika, New Zealand, 1866. Imagine if you will, the hardships the settlers on this new land faced. Yes, they were all there to make their fortune. But at what cost? Picture the wild west, but perhaps a little bit wilder.
Twelve astrological signs, twelve men. From the four corners of the earth. Of different backgrounds, beliefs and creeds. Different accents and languages. Each has his part to play.
"You see in New Zealand every man has left his former life behind & every man is equal in his way... It is not uncommon for men to tip their hats to one another in the street regardless of their station."
Gold. Greed. Smuggling. Skullduggery. Betrayal. Fraud. Forgery. False identity. Identity theft. Infidelity. Treachery. Shipwrecks. Racism. Revenge. Murder. A séance. The blissful oblivion of opium.
There are secrets and lies, half truths and things left unsaid. The observation ”But everyone’s jealous of something.” is oh so apt, and displayed repeatedly in this book.
”For the planets have changed places against the wheeling canvas of the stars.”
I have to admit to being totally oblivious to the reason that the chapters had headings relating to astrological aspects. Some other reviewers, far cleverer than I, have put forward their take on that. It involved too much esoteric thought on my part to even begin to fathom the reasoning behind this. Clever though it is. It took all my thought processes to invest my concentration on the minutiae of the characters and the unfolding of the story, than to think too deeply of the cosmic and worldly plane connections.
"If I have learned one thing from experience, it is this: never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view."
You have to focus when reading this book. It’s not one to read in quick snippets over a cuppa, or late at night before dozing off to sleep. You have to keep your mind razor sharp, as there is so much going on. You have to take your time and savour it. You need to ponder about what you’ve read. You need to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Make them fit. Slowly, slowly.
As the story progresses and it becomes more involved - it simultaneously becomes clearer - if that makes sense. The pieces of the puzzle do begin to fit. You can start to join the dots and see the connections. It's easy to get immersed. The more I read, the more I had lightbulb moments where I realised how clever the links between the stories were. It is so intricately done.
I have to admit I struggled with this book at the beginning. It is dense. It's not easy to get your head around. The first few hundred pages are spent introducing the characters and setting the scene for the climax of the story. It's hard work. I can understand people floundering. Or giving up. But if you stick with it, once you reach a certain point, the story gathers momentum and picks up speed remarkably fast. Ironic, as while the chapters grow ever smaller, more revelations are revealed.
For all the mystery and intrigue, this is also a love story. Which isn’t overtly obvious, and I don’t know how many other readers will have felt the same way about it. It’s easy to overlook, as there is so much else going on, as the primary focus lies elsewhere.
”We all want to be loved - and need to be loved, I think. Without love, we cannot be ourselves.”
Anna Wetherell and Emery Staines are twin flames - having been born on the same day at the same time - their love is as guileless as it is true. While Lydia Wells and Francis Carver display the darker side of love. Cruel and predatory. As the finding of gold can signal new beginnings or alternately cause grief and destruction, so can love either be the comfort of coming home to someone, or bringing out the worst shadow side of people.
I had many stops and starts reading this. And read many other books in between. I started in January, and now being October, means it took me a good nine months. Quite the time investment. Seasons have come and gone. I started reading this at the height of the Summer - scorching heat, humidity and bushfires; through to the mellowing of Autumn - with a brief glimpse of respite, and smoke free, clean air; after which where we were then taken by surprise by the pandemic, to a Winter spent indoors effectively under lockdown, and now we’re in the first blossoming of Spring. Like the changing phases of the Moon in the book, so it has been with reading. All the seasons! All the phases!
Having a hardback version, meant I had to settle in nice and comfy to read it. Take my time. It's not a book you can casually throw in your handbag (or manbag, if you please). Though I did manage to lug it down the beach a couple of times, for a few hours reading. Normally I'll lose track of the plot or characters if I leave a book unread for any length of time. But even with the intervals, I still found it easy to pick up where I left off. Which is unusual for me.
One thing that did frustrate me no end was how one of the township's prostitutes - Anna Wetherell - was continually referred to as a whore. And by this I mean every few pages. It annoyed me not only because she is a pivotal character to the story (and one of two female mains) in a book filled with men, but for the fact that she was so much more than her profession. As the book progressed and I learnt more of her backstory, I started to feel an understanding of her character, an empathy even. To appreciate what she'd been through. How women are so often left to survive as best they can in a “man’s world”. It was phrased beautifully as "A woman fallen has no future; a man risen has no past." As if the story is drawing to attention the disparity of how the sexes are all too often treated. The double standards. Which is why it surprised and disappointed me of the repeated references of her being a whore. If I read it once, I read it a dozen times. More than dozens. Maybe someone out there has done a "whore" word count. Yes, we know what she does for a living. Can we move-on-and-focus-on-the-story. It wasn't driven home repeatedly that this man is a banker, that man a prospector, he’s the jail keeper, he’s a murderer, he's a smuggler etc. This was a huge bone of contention for me. I really don’t know what the purpose of it was. It was as if Ms.Caton was fixated on this point for some reason.
Though this took me months to complete, I'm so glad that I did. Up there with reading another epic From Here To Eternity. Easily these are the two biggest books I've read to date.
Jokes aside, this would've been 5☆ for me if quite a few pages had been shaved off. Did it need to be quite as long as it was? Probably not. More than the page count, I would have been more forgiving if someone had pointed out to Ms. Caton the overuse - to the point of abuse - of the "w" word. It became the literary equivalent of an earworm.
4 full ☆. Undoubtedly this is incredible storytelling. I cannot fault that. It is quite the masterpiece. Yes. It was worth it.