Eleanor Catton's Booker contender is a mesmerising tale of murder and mystery set in 19th-century New Zealand
by Lucy Scholes
The Observer, Sunday 8 September 2013
'Dazzling': Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
Eleanor Catton's second novel begins one wet January night in 1866 as Walter Moody, fresh off the boat to make his fortune on the New Zealand goldfields, enters the smoking room at the Crown hotel in Hokitika, "a town not five years built, at the end of the world". Outwardly composed, but "carrying a leaden weight of terror in his gut", he's preoccupied by the memory of a ghoulish apparition he encountered on his passage, doubting his faculties and all at sea inside himself. But before we can hear Moody's tale, an even more mysterious one must begin, for he has stumbled upon a clandestine council of 12 men, "convened in stealth" to discuss a snarl of unsolved crimes.
by Eleanor Catton
Two weeks previously, on the night of 14 January, the lives of five individuals shifted their courses: the wealthy prospector Emery Staines vanished; Anna Wetherell, an opium-addicted prostitute, attempted suicide; Crosbie Wells, a down-on-his-luck drunk, was found dead in his cottage, in which was subsequently discovered an enormous fortune, then claimed by a wife, whom nobody had heard of; the brutal ship's captain with a chequered past, Francis Carver, hot-footed it from Hokitika in the middle of the night; and the politician Alistair Lauderback arrived in the town, ill-fatedly encountering both the bodies, the first already dead, the second near lifeless, of Crosbie and Anna, on the road instead of a fanfare of welcome.
So far, so Wilkie Collins down under – a tale of adultery, theft, conspiracy, trafficking, blackmail and murder set against the backdrop of the gold rush, opium dens, seances and tarot cards – but The Luminaries is a dazzling feat of a novel, the golden nugget in this year's Man Booker longlist, a pastiche quite unlike anything I've ever come across, so graceful is its plotting and structure.
The first part of the novel, nigh-on 400 pages, is one of the most beautifully and intricately mapped pieces I've ever read – the recollections of the 12 different men of a single day, 27 January, the day on which the story begins, the "disjunctive and chaotic" events of which lead to their incongruous night-time meeting, all woven into a narrative as smooth and gleaming as a piece of newly spun silk, told in perfect chronology, "in deference to the harmony of the turning spheres of time". And it's to the spheres that she turns for the structure of what could otherwise be an unwieldy tome – each of the novel's 12 parts decreasing steadily in length to mimic the waning moon throughout its lunar cycle.
The 12 men are a motley crew – a Maori gemstone hunter, a banker, a newspaperman, a hotelier, a goldfields magnate, a Chinese goldsmith, a commission merchant, a chemist, a shipping agent, a justice's clerk, an opium-smoking hatter, and a chaplain. They are the fixed stellar constellations of the tale (incredibly, each man's individual astrological chart directs the role he plays in the action that unfolds), interconnected in a "strange tangle of association", around which orbit the planetary characters of the piece, three external pairs – "the widow and the trafficker; the politician and the gaoler; the prospector and the whore" – and Moody, the "unraveller", the detective.
On first setting foot on New Zealand soil, he looks up to the heavens, disorientated by the unfamiliar patterns above. But even here, "in the black of the antipodes, where everything was upended and unformed", a string of apparent coincidences are discovered to be points in a complex labyrinth of entwined fates and fortunes. After all, "what was a coincidence, Moody thought, but a stilled moment in a sequence that had yet to be explained?"