'The Luminaries': a literary gold rush

Eleanor Catton's Booker-winning novel is a historical murder mystery that defies expectations

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Eleanor Catton's second novel, "The Luminaries," is one trickster of a book. Ms. Catton's 830-page novel won the 2013 Man Booker Prize, which honors the best work of fiction written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, Ireland or the Commonwealth. At 28, this New Zealand resident is the youngest recipient of the award.

Ms. Catton's first novel, "The Rehearsal," was published in 2008. "The Luminaries" is a fiercely historical murder mystery. Set during the 1860s Otago gold rush on New Zealand's South Island, it's also written in the verbose style of a 19th-century Victorian novel.

By Eleanor Catton.
Little, Brown and Co. ($27).

A hermit named Crosbie Wells is found dead in his home; his gold fortune is missing. On the same day, the wealthy prospector Emery Staines vanishes and the opium-addicted prostitute Anna Wetherell is found senseless by the side of a road.

Later, Anna discovers gold dust sewn into the hems and bodice of her dress but can't recall how it got there. Lydia Wells, a woman no one's met, claims to be Crosbie's widow and heiress to the fortune. A group of 12 men gather to solve the mystery.

They are a mixed bunch that exemplify the rapid settlement of Otago: the hotelier, shipping agent, justice clerk, and goldfields magnate commingle with the Chinese opium dealer, indentured goldsmith and native Maori.

As each shares what he knows, pieces of the mystery come together, but not enough to make complete sense. The novel silences its Chinese and Maori characters, prohibiting the Europeans from learning their stories. The Chinese man's words aren't translated into English; the Maori isn't invited to testify in court. For Ms. Catton, history is at once a voice and a silence.

The novel begins two weeks after Wells' murder. It progresses forward in time and then doubles back to reveal the events as they lead up to the crime. Ms. Catton deliberately plays with pacing and plotting. At first, the book is slow. Characters are mentioned without prior context, which causes confusion. When the narrative doubles back to their stories again, things suddenly make sense, and the pace picks up.

"The Luminaries" transforms itself into an all-absorbing mystery as the plot thickens. Lydia Wells mysteriously pays all of Anna's debts, releasing her from prostitution but enslaving her anew. An aspiring ship captain, Francis Carver, blackmails a politician for having an affair with Lydia. Walter Moody arrives in New Zealand shaken; he's seen a ghost on a ship.

Each character corresponds with an astrological planet or star sign; chapters chart their movement through the sky. Anna and Emery are the luminaries, the sun and moon. The book's form reflects the astrology metaphor. The 12 zodiac signs correspond to each of the 12 councilmen. Each moves 30 degrees through the sky. Not coincidentally, the first section of the book is 360 pages long.

The astrological framework allows for a nuanced study of character types. When Emery Staines returns, the novel moves toward closure with a trial, which solves much of the mystery and doles out justice. Walter Moody, the novel's level-headed outsider, is the defense attorney; he outs the truth but ignores falsities in the process.

So, is justice done? Is everything really connected? Does this mystery really conclude with a sense of resolution? The answer to these questions is a resounding: No. After the trial, Moody leaves town in disappointment. He can no longer tell a story that's "the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

His traveling companion states: "[N]o need for truth at all. ... Who ever said anything about truth? You're a free man in this country. ... You tell me any old rubbish you like."

"The Luminaries" shows how easily we're satisfied with partial truths. In this place of new starts, truth, like men, are fabrications. Even though it's a doorstop of a book, readers are rewarded for their diligence: this is a historical mystery unlike anything else.

That said, it's unsettling that the novel concludes with an image of cozy romance. Just before he's murdered, Crosbie declares: "Everything's beginning to add up. Only I can't quite see it yet. The picture." The romantic conclusion seems too predictable for a novel that plays with expectations.

Everything adds up in this novel, but the picture with which it concludes doesn't match the one I expected. But you know what? I have the feeling that this might be precisely the point.

Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh (jah35@pitt.edu).

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