The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportment and dress—frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill—they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway—deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain."
Eleanor Catton has written a Victorian novel for the 21st century. Set during the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s, it features a large cast of prospectors, bankers, politicians, con men, whores, and fortune tellers, all mixed up in a mystery of stolen gold and dead and missing men. It's ambitious and massive, but impossible to sort out.
That there are twelve men gathered in the novel's opening scene is a sign that the novel is constructed around the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Each character is a different sign with a fate to match. Each section of the book focuses on one character's interaction with one or more of the others. This necessitates a long novel and "The Luminaries" stretches to over 800 pages. I was about a third of the way through the novel when I finally started getting comfortable knowing who all the characters are. It becomes easier the farther one reads, as characters start telling each other bits and pieces of their backstories and their own roles in the various mysteries. The structure leads to flashbacks that help to explain all the mysteries, but forces the reader to keep track of which time period we're in now. More than once I caught myself thinking, "Hey, didn't that character die?"
Overall, it's a mystery novel, but it's never obvious exactly what the mystery is. At one point, a character says, "What a poor crime this is—when we have no body, and no murderer!" Is it murder? Theft? Blackmail? Cuckoldry? Revenge? Yes to all. And how do all the characters relate to each other?
Moody looked from face to face. No one man could really be called "guilty," just as no one man could really be called "innocent." They were—associated? Involved? Entangled? Moody frowned. He felt that he did not possess the right word to describe their interrelation.
All that is what makes this a very ambitious novel. Catton has to juggle more than a dozen characters, all involved in various...crimes, shall we say, all true to their respective astrological signs, in a plot that all has to tie together all the various story lines logically. When I finally put this novel down, I felt less like I was convinced that the mysteries all had been resolved and more like I was just too exhausted to try to decide if they had.
The BBC is turning "The Luminaries" into a six-part television series. I look forward to having a chance to revisit the New Zealand town of Hokitika and all the endlessly fascinating characters who were brought to life by Eleanor Catton in a long-ago gold rush.