Monday, December 9, 2013

What's so wonderful about The Luminaries?

This year's winner of the Man Booker Prize is The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. When I first espied this book, I was at once drawn to its invisible power, just as a lodestone is drawn to invisible force of our terrestrial poles. When I opened up the jacket, met the source of this power, my attraction was not in any way decreased. I opened the book and began reading at once, rapt in attention as a child is when first encountering a magician. What Ms. Catton has achieved in her novel is nothing short of an herculean task in the realm of modern literature. She has mimicked perfectly the style of the great mystery writers of the 19th century (e.g., Dickins and Wilkie Collins) but has also succeeded in creating something new with the integration of her own mode of modern formalism. The book consists of a dozen parts, each part half the length of the previous installment, very much following the waning lunar cycle. Keeping up with this astrological trope, each of these twelve parts corresponds to the astrological sign of a specific day, influencing the lives of thirteen men who become embroiled in the mystery of a missing gold bonanza during the New Zealand Gold Rush of the 1860's.

What we are then left with is a question of whether the actions of these characters are predestined by the stars, or whether the characters are the agents of their own destiny. But what is all the more remarkable is that the story unfolds through the storytelling of each character--each of twelve characters describing his part in the mystery of this missing gold to the newcomer, Walter Moody. Each character approaches the mystery from his own set desires and fears, corresponding to their respective astrological signs, and what the reader is given is not fact as to how the events of the story have transpired, but perspective--human perspective (and therefore open to interpretation). Nobody sees the whole story. Nobody knows the whole truth. Everyone has an agenda. Like the stars and planets in the heavens, their positions change: friends become enemies and enemies may be allies; some celestial objects block our view while others line up in harmony. Nothing remains the same as the story unfolds, no truth stands absolute, and, by the end of this spectacular novel, the reader has completely revolved around the story through each character's tale to arrive at its foregone conclusion in a unified vision of the heavens.Thus we,as readers, have assumed the role of astronaut and visited the far expanses of this universe and come to feel a part of it (though we have no great story
of our own to tell, but are made all the more integral by glimpsing it).

The Luminaries is a tremendous feet of literature rising to astronomical heights and, like so many of those astronomical occurrences, will be seen in our lifetimes only infrequently. The question you must then ask yourself is: will I look up to the heavens and behold its splendor? Or will I cast down my eyes to the earth and miss all the wonders this book has to offer?


  1. Wonderful book. rather long with lots of characters but I am really enjoying it. would recommend it to friends and relations.
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  2. I enjoyed the piecemeal construction of the mystery through the reappraisal of the same events from different perspectives, followed by the formal legalistic elucidation, and then the rounding out via the examination of the interactions of the parties. That sounds awfully dry - believe me, the book is anything but, as the process of drawing you in is more or less irresistible.
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  3. The luminaries kept me awake many nights, the plot unwinds only very slowly and engages your mind more than any other novel. I feel as if I have been in New Zealand for the past two weeks digging for gold.

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  4. This was a gripping book full of characters with powerful motivations. The historical setting of gold fields, drugs, and strong women who free themselves from exploitation tells a compelling store. The plot is very carefully crafted to carry the suspense to the very end. The writing is sparse but sharp enough to evoke sympathies for the characters and their various predicaments.

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