Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize this year for The Luminaries. Because it is such a unique novel, it stands alone and cannot be categorized as a certain genre. Earlier this year, critics suggested that Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch was Dickensian in its story telling. I never bought that comparison. Equal to Tartt's in length, Catton's novel is more deserving of the comparison. It certainly reads like a Victorian novel, but one without the cloying sentimentality of many writers in that era.
The story takes place in New Zealand (Catton's country) in about 1866 in a setting that seems akin to the rough American frontier towns spawned by the gold rush. Hokitika in New Zealand's southwest is also experiencing gold fever. Hokitika has its saloons, cheap hotels, brothels, a bank, a jail, and a mansion or two. At the heart of the story is a mystery that is slowly revealed as the book moves toward its climax. The book is filled with disparate characters drawn together by their thirst for striking it rich. As time goes on, each character is exposed, and the reader begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together once he/she gets beyond the misunderstandings and lies that bind the characters together. You must look sharp to unravel the mystery though, as the truth is revealed in bits and pieces going back and forth in time. At the novels center, is a fortune in gold sewn into four gowns whose ownership is in dispute.
The story opens at the Crown Hotel in the smoking room where 12 men who all play an important part in the book are gathered together. Here is where our tale unfolds. Each section of the book is introduced by an astrological calendar that I did not understand, and I did not take the time to research, though I wonder if they give clues to solving the book's puzzle. Like all frontier towns, the population was made up of young men eager for a fresh start. Standing in for the reader is a Scotsman named Walter Moody, a barrister whose greatest moment, in his young 28 year old life, is conducting the defense at a trial at the end of the book. As the trial proceeds, the reader begins to find answers to who is telling lies, who is innocent, who is guilty.
Also at the heart of the book is a love story, though the lovers, Emery Staines and Anna Wetherell, are separated throughout most of the novel. A lonely man who dies in a remote cottage, a politician, a scheming madam named Lydia Wells who claims to be the dead man's wife, a Maori jade trader, two Chinese men, each with his own motives for being there, all these people are cause and effect in moving the story towards its ending.
All this is much too complicated to try to explain in any coherent manner. You must read the book and find your own meaning. If you like meandering Victorian novels in the manner of Dickens and mysteries like that in Our Mutual Friend or Edwin Drood, you will like this book. It is a masterpiece of style and language. If you are not fond of long novels which you must think on to find answers, run away; you will not enjoy this book. As for me, I liked it very much, though I found the ending somewhat abrupt and not altogether satisfying.