Book review: Hefty tome pays off

By Nicky Pellegrino

Kiwi gold rush novel long and complex but so worth it, Nicky Pellegrino notes.

Author Eleanor Catton.
Author Eleanor Catton.

If you know only two things about The Luminaries by Auckland writer Eleanor Catton (VUP) most likely they will be that the novel is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and that it is vastly long - more than 800 pages. This is a book of such heft that I circled it warily for some time, half-peeved with Catton for presuming to take up so much of my time.

And when I did start to read I got thumb strain from holding the thing open. Was it worth it? Yes, I think so. For what Catton has created is a book that is as extraordinary as it is lengthy.

Set in rain-scalded Hokitika during the gold rush of the 1860s, the story opens on a stormy night as a new arrival, Charles Moody, enters the smoking room of the Crown Hotel. There he finds 12 men and very soon discovers they are not gathered there by accident. Each is somehow linked to the events of a night two weeks previously when a local hermit died, a wealthy prospector disappeared, an opium-addicted prostitute attempted suicide and a fortune of gold was discovered. All these pieces of plot are linked in a Rubik's Cube of a mystery that is precisely peopled and finely detailed.

Complex things are going on here beneath the narrative. The book has an astrological structure and Catton says she worked out its events using charts she drew up. Its style is a pastiche of 19th-century writing.

The chapters shrink in size as the book goes on. But the reader can choose to ignore all the ways the author has chosen to box herself in and instead be caught up in this epic story where everyone has secrets and no one is entirely what they seem.

Catton's control over her material is awe-inspiring. She marshals her characters and fits together the pieces of her puzzle with an adroitness that writers with decades' more experience - and infinitely more fame - might envy. However, most of all she brings to life an era and a place more vividly than pretty much any other piece of historical fiction I have read - New Zealand or otherwise.

She creates a world and the reader feels a part of it. Rather than all the self-conscious cleverness and the literary tricks, this is the real shining gold of The Luminaries to me.

The winner of the Man Booker prize will be announced on October 15. If she gets it then, at 27, Catton will be the youngest author ever do to so.

Whatever the result, the real triumph is the book itself with its great, big, glorious story of shipwrecks and swindlers, opium addicts and prospectors, secrets caches of gold stitched into gowns, fate and fortune, greed, hope and desperation.

It is a challenge only because there is so much of it. But this is no dry and dull duty read. Crack it open and The Luminaries will hook you in and hold you to the very last page.

- Herald on Sunday

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