Saturday, January 4, 2014

from December: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Granta, 2013
832 pp

hardcover, UK ed.

"Reverse alchemy, is what I like to call it,"...  "the whole business, I mean—prospecting. Reverse alchemy. Do you see—the transformation—not into gold, but out of it—"

I pre-purchased this  novel before its UK publication date; when searching out new books last year I took one look at the blurb and instantly fell in love with the premise.   Once I cracked open this massive tome, I fell into one of the most intriguing reads ever and I remember thinking at the outset that it reminded me quite a bit of the work of Wilkie Collins by way of Charles Dickens.  However, the more I got into it, the more I realized that this was something very different.  Two things stood out for me here: first, the novel's originality; second, the author's incredible storytelling ability. 

There is absolutely no very good way of describing the plot, so I will offer only a brief look.  Arriving by ship in a small goldrush town in New Zealand in 1866, young Walter Moody has seen something that shakes him to his core.  He takes up residence in one of the town's hotels, and one night wanders into a group of twelve men who have the strangest stories to tell.  At first all but one are reluctant; as time goes on, however, a startling tale emerges that has to do with a  hermit who dies, leaving an  estate being contested by a previously-unknown wife, a missing man, an opium-addicted prostitute who has, it seems, tried to kill herself, and a sea captain with a habit of taking on other people's identities. As their respective stories capture Moody's attention, he realizes that his own shipboard experience may have a connection to this fantastic collage of stories.  But wait -- as soon as the reader thinks he or she has some or most of this crazy puzzle  figured out, things have a way of transforming into something completely different.  Like the era, the goldfields and the people who inhabit this novel, your sense of stability while reading this book often finds itself in a bit of turmoil. 

I noticed in particular one major theme running throughout this novel:  fortune. While there are others as well, this one for me was the most visible.  It's here in  gold mining, chance, and fate; here fortunes are won, fortunes are lost, and  fortune works as an agent of transformation.  There's so much in this book, none the least of which is a fine old-fashioned, Victorian-style mystery and adventure story at the novel's heart; there's also a look at a volatile, wild-westish period in New Zealand's history.  The sense of time and place that accompanies this peek into the gold-rush era is well crafted, starting with the first page.  And along with the story, there's the innovative structure: it took me a while to figure out what was going on, but once I figured it out, I was absolutely delighted with the author's innovation and originality.  You can read other reviews if you want to know ahead of time; my suggestion would be to pay close attention to all of the little charts at the beginning of each section.  Part of the fun, I think, is in realizing exactly how clever the author is here.  And that's clever in a good way, unlike some books where sometimes clever is a turn off.

I loved, absolutely LOVED this book -- it's probably one of the few times in my reading life that after the end of the last page, instead of breathing a sigh of relief that an 800+ page novel had finally come to an end, I wanted more.   Reader responses have been from "best book I've ever read," to "snoozefest, couldn't get past the first chapter," so they vary.  It is the perfect book, even for the casual reader -- here, the story itself will sweep you up and take you along for an incredible and rollicking ride. 

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