The Luminaries

“If home can’t be where you come from, then home is what you make of where you go.”

Eleanor Catton

So I picked up The Luminaries for the ludicrously small price of £2 from a bookshop that was, sadly, shutting down, because I’d seen a good review on Booklikes and had a pressing need for something to read. As it turns out, it’s also a Booker Prize winner, which makes it a fairly unusual read for me because, well, a lot of self-consciously literary books just make me want to fall asleep. (God of Small Things, I’m looking at you.)

It’s 1866 in the gold town of Hokitika, New Zealand. Walter Moody, a young man seeking his fortune on the gold fields, walks into the smoking room of the Crown Hotel to find twelve men holding a council about a set of mysterious events in which they all, variously, seem to be implicated, unwittingly but damningly. A rich prospector has vanished; a prostitute has overdosed on opium; a friendless hermit has drunk himself to death. There is a fortune of mysterious origin, a villainous sea-captain, and a politician of doubtful motive. It’s a proper whodunit, and a magnificently handled one: the mystery is unfolded slowly but surely, with infinite delicacy and elegance; information is released piece by piece, the net untangled link by unfathomable link, so that almost every single chapter asks you to go back to the original picture to find that it has changed infinitesimally but significantly, until the very very end, when the last piece of the puzzle reveals something very beautiful indeed.

There were a lot of metaphors in that last sentence, but that’s genuinely what reading The Luminaries was like. It’s an astonishingly subtle piece of writing, full of fascinating and sometimes tragic characters, in a landscape both romantic and ruthless, where justice is best served through lies, where anarchy seems preferable to government, where the rough-and-ready life of the gold fields collides with the demands of civilization. And, yes, it’s a long book, running to more than 800 pages in paperback, but it never feels like hard work, or like the author has put art above story.

There’s probably a lot more I could or should say, but to be honest it’s not going to do any kind of justice to what it’s like actually to read The Luminaries, so I’ll leave it here, with the most whole-hearted of recommendations


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