Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton - Book Review

Publisher's write-up:

'It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous sum of money has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.'

So far I have read one book from an author who won the Nobel Prize for literature and one book that has won the Man Booker Prize; the latter gave me a reading experience for a lifetime (being Rushdie' Midnight's Children) whereas the former was possibly the worst book that I have read till date (being Herta Muller's The Land of Plums). I have always wanted to read a good mystery novel written by a woman (as I rarely have any, in my shelf and I wanted the diversity) and yes, there came a crime story based during the Victorian Era, a Man Booker Prize winner in the form of The Luminaries and there wasn't any better chance than this one to increase the diversity of my bookshelf.

This story is set in the 1860s in a small town in the West Coast by the name Hokitika, during the period of New Zealand's gold rush. The story revolves around many characters; as given by the publisher in the write-up, twelve men gather at a hotel to discuss these crimes as each of them are directly or indirectly affected by them. These twelve don't have any direct connection with each other and are from varying backgrounds starting from a wealthy magnate to an indentured Chinese labourer. For starters, a drunk hermit has been found dead with a huge fortune in his house, a whore was saved from the brink of death and subsequently charged with attempted suicide and finally, a wealthy young man has gone missing all of a sudden and the twelve men at the hotel are in some way or the other, related to the events or affected by the events and all of them have their own reasons to find answers to these mysteries.

I'd say that to read this book, it requires a lot of patience, it has 832 pages, the longest that I have ever read and it has too many characters and to be very frank, I myself took two spells to complete reading the novel. As I said, with each of these twelve narrating their story from their own view point, by around 180 pages, I completely lost track and took a break from reading this book but then, the mistake I made was, she has given the list of characters at the start of the book and fearing spoilers, I never looked at it; and when I picked up the book again and got the flow, there was no question of putting it down (yes, that list of characters was helpful and contains no spoilers).

To be honest, whenever I have read such awfully long novels, including Midnight's Children, where despite the story being brilliant individually, I have felt that the size of the book is not justified but this was one such book which I felt, that despite the size, every page of the book was justified and there was movement in the story every passing moment with all kinds of twists and turns, exactly what you would want as a reader in a mystery novel. Those who enjoyed watching the picturesque locations in New Zealand in The Lord of the Rings can certainly try this, with Catton describing the Victorian New Zealand beautifully in her various pages and also bringing out the life of all classes of people during that time - a politician, a lawyer, a clerk at the magistrate, an indentured labourer, a hatter, a business magnate, captain of a ship, a hotelier among various others.

I also loved Catton's writing style, which was lucid, yet, not drab, long, but had still had the content and of course, the characters, the more you get to know them, the more complex they become with you beginning to suspect every person and there were points where I even suspected the versions of the stories of certain characters eventually, even though I unconditionally accepted them in the beginning. So yeah, I acknowledge the fact that the author could very well manipulate my thoughts regarding the individual characters of the book and that is something that I admire about the book.

The only demerit I found is that I really don't agree with the way in which she closed all her loose ends - I don't deem this information to be a spoiler, but the story ends before the beginning of the last hundred pages and then, she just ties up her loose ends; while it is commendable to leave a mystery novel with minimal loose ends, I feel this is not the best way to have dealt with it.

I wouldn't comment on the metaphorical element of the book as, understandably so, this book has a lot of references to astrology and zodiac signs but then, the reference was too subtle that you don't really need to know them to love the book and appreciate the story and I am one of those readers who has no clue about astrology.

To conclude, I wanted to diversify my bookshelf and ironically, I finished the book and the review on International Women's Day (8th March, 2016) and yeah, reading this was indeed a complete reading experience, in terms of language, a good story to tell and for a history enthusiast like myself, I go back with some knowledge on New Zealand's gold rush and 19th century New Zealand, in general.

On the whole, I would give this book a rating of eight.

Rating - 8/10

Have a nice day,

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