A Provocative Gold Rush Mystery From the Other Side of the World

“Mannering was in the august high noon of his life. He was prosperous, and well dressed, and he owned the largest and most handsome building on Revellstreet. There were gold nuggets hanging from his watch chain. He ate meat at every meal. He had known a hundred women — maybe even a thousand — maybe more. What did he care about friends?”

–excerpt from The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries is a story of drama and mystery of the best variety; it will delight both those brainier sorts with a very calculated attention to detail, but also dreamers of the astrological sort— as long as you’re willing to work through its more-than-800 pages. (Truth be told, I failed my own first attempt at reading it, but feel well-rewarded upon finishing!)

If you’re looking for a story of interlaced tales and controversies to make your brain spin, this one will have you singing through its pages.

Published in 2013 by Canadian-born Eleanor Catton, who lives in New Zealand, The Luminaries thrives on the hope and greed of a frontier settlement and the divided loyalties of its residents.

It’s 1865 in Hokitika, a town on the cusp of a booming gold rush on New Zealand’s South Island when Walter Moody, a young man seeking his own fortune, blows into town on a stormy eve and into a secret assembly of 12 men. The mismatched congregation of characters are in the midst of disentangling the weighty mystery of a murder, an extraordinary amount of gold and a young prostitute’s attempted suicide. Each man is embroiled in the puzzle of events and as they narrate their tales, an intricate picture spanning decades and continents starts to take shape.

Like the Klondike, the New Zealand Gold Rush spurred intense migration and a boom of industry on foreign territory. It was a volatile time of change, the “twilight” as Eleanor Catton labels it, between an old and new world and delicious backdrop for a tale of intrigue.

Catton’s use of old-world syntax successfully transports the reader to another time with opium, prostitutes, bad moonshine and gambling habits abound, while the variety in her tone, playing between matter-of-fact, politely distanced and pointedly whimsical, creates a tangible world of characters rich in both faults and virtues.

Fictional and historical, Catton nimbly braids an astrological component into the novel as well. This thread not only shows the work she laboured into the story, but adds a dreamlike quality to the more distinct mysteries already in contention.

Intricately layered with opportunity, betrayal and scandal, The Luminaries is a book that warrants the thickness of its spine (and the Man Booker Prize it won in 2013) and I would recommend giving it a go; however, the one caveat is the takeaway message: there isn’t really one.

Don’t be deterred: the plot is deliciously satisfying, the skill in how it is unfurled absolutely supreme and the entertainment value very high, but, after reading, your world will likely remain unchanged.

We all seek different things from the books we read, and Catton has created a real masterpiece in this work of art, but if you’re a reader who requires more intensive social scrutiny or subversive commentary, I’d caution you to quit those expectations before you flip the cover. Instead, enjoy the ride—it’s truly a fantastic one!

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is available at the Whitehorse Public Library and at several other community libraries, as well.

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