I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to!
As with The Goldfinch, I’m very late arriving with this, but this seems to be turning into the summer when I finally have time to read all those big thick books I’ve been putting off.
The Luminaries is a pseudo-Victorian mystery set in New Zealand during the gold panning days. As would have been the case at that time and place, the large cast of characters is very male, with the exception of a prostitute and an enigmatic “femme fatale,” and very white, apart from a couple of Chinese men and a native New Zealander.
Differentiation between all these characters is helped by the fact that their roles are strongly identified with their profession/place in society. On another level, Catton has assigned each a sign of the Zodiac, or a planet, and there are two “moon” and “sun” characters, the mysteriously missing young man Emery Staines and prostitute Anna Wetherall. The “Zodiac” characters’ actions motives revolve around the “moon” and the “sun”.
If this all sounds very complicated, the nice thing is that you don’t have to know anything about this at all to enjoy the book, which is basically a murder mystery, done in that atmospheric manner that I love my mysteries to unfold in, and which is so different from most modern mysteries/thrillers, which I don’t get on with at all.
I’d heard criticisms of the book’s complicated structure, but I found that I liked it. Each section is half as long as the one before. That immediately got me thinking about the way mathematical series work, and how the sums of some series get bigger and bigger (diverge) and the sums of others converge, ie get closer and closer but never exactly get to the same point as a number. So if you add a half and a quarter and an eighth and keep going with terms that are half as big again, you get to 1. There are these things called Baravelle spirals, which illustrate what I am thinking of. For me, it mirrored the idea that the mystery was getting ever more complex, but that we would never really reach the heart of it.
The best thing about the book was the incredible way in which the twenty-eight year old Catton (and that’s twenty-eight when it was published! Never mind the time it took her to write and research it) empathised with the way outsiders, especially racial and gender outsiders, had to battle so hard to survive in this harsh society. Some of the backstories were full of terrible injustice, and as the novel unfolded, I found I was rooting for the “Goodies” and wanting the “Baddies” to come to a sticky end – something I find a compelling motive to read on.
The end was the only thing that was a bit disappointing – it didn’t have the emotional closure that I would have liked, considering how much I had invested in the characters by the end of it. Still, I just as much enjoy an exciting journey as I do a great destination.