When I bought my copy of The Luminaries, the day after Eleanor Catton won the 2013 Man Booker Prize, the bookseller said it was her dream that people all over New Zealand would be lying on the beach reading it over the summer break. Perhaps her vision is coming true: at time of press, the book had sold more than 50,000 copies and 5000 e-copies in this country alone. In this office, the book has been devoured by male and female readers alike, unusual for what can be superficially described as "historical fiction".
Do not be daunted by its size: 832 pages. Enjoy its generosity. More than one reader has said they didn't want it to end and "desperately wanted more". That is perfect summer reading.
Set in Hokitika during the gold rushes of 1866, with more than a nod to the Victorian literature of the time, The Luminaries is propelled by a galloping narrative told through the various eyes of its cast of tricky characters. But you must pay attention to the details.
Follow the gold dust; there is a lot of it at stake. Key figures include fortune-seeker Walter Moody, who arrives in Hokitika and intrudes upon a meeting in a bar of 12 men furtively discussing a series of crimes. Anna, the whore with a dress of gold, has a backstory that will knock your socks off. The opium scenes are so convincing you wonder if Catton has had a puff. The dialogue is absolutely terrific.
And then there's the atmosphere. It's as if you, the reader, are with each character in turn in Hokitika, a dangerous place where everyone is an opportunist and everyone has secrets. You can smell the horses, the desperation, the rain. You feel damp. Catton plays with the signs of astrology and the occult. There is a seance. There are sly asides. Catton is playful and wilful, a fiendishly clever combination.
At time of writing, all stock had sold out but more copies (many more) are coming for the Christmas rush. You could call The Luminaries a "historical western thriller", but that's still not quite right. You'll have to read it and decide what it is for yourself. And it won the Man Booker ... Catton made us so proud.