First Book of 2019: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Hi! Long time no talk! It’s actually only been two weeks which is wild because I feel like a lot happened in that last half of January. But I have very exciting news, I finished book #1 of 2019! It was The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, and I cannot even begin to describe how much I loved it. Saying that I loved it doesn’t do my feelings justice. I was in awe of this book. And I know I’ve proven myself to be a pretty emotional over-reactor to books on this blog in the past (how many books have I called “perfect” and “genius”? Every book can’t be perfect, Libby, come on!) but I swear that the last page in this novel took my breath away.

Before I get into my review, a quick warning: the intricacies of the plot, characters, and timeline are going to make it difficult to sum this one up. But I’ll try my best, per usual!

The book is made up of twelve parts, and kicks off with 361-page Part I, in which a stranger named Walter Moody arrives to the mining town of Hokitika and stumbles upon a diverse group of twelve local men having a meeting. Moody, the outsider from Scotland who has come to make his fortune in the gold rush, soon becomes drawn into their council, and learns the background. The men are meeting with the purpose of combining all of their knowledge in the hopes of solving a series of (possibly related) crimes that had happened earlier that month.

The crimes: on January 14, 1866, the wealthy Emery Staines went missing; a prostitute named Anna Wetherell, by all appearances, tries to kill herself; and a drunken recluse named Crosbie Wells is found dead in his home – in which a huge and inexplicable fortune was also discovered. The members of the council of twelve men are all tied to one or two or all three of these characters by varying degrees, so everyone has gathered to combine their knowledge in the hopes of painting a more complete picture.

And… that’s sort of the book, now that I’m really thinking about it. Part I begins with tons of background as each of the twelve men speaks their piece and an omniscient narrator makes connections about who each of these men are, and what their place is in the story. Part II jumps ahead by about a month, when the twelve men of the council have returned to their ordinary lives, and some of the information that was supposed to have remained confidential filters out as the men gossip. New characters are introduced, and some pieces vaguely start falling into place. Part III jumps ahead by another month, and that’s when things really started to get interesting, when some of the mysteries are addressed head on and the reader starts to get a much clearer (but still hazy) picture of what might be going on. I’m being intentionally vague on plot so I don’t ruin anything.

Then Part VI jumps back in time by a year, and I loved this section. The reader finally gets to see the origin stories of a few of the more complex characters like Anna Wetherell, the prostitute, who is constantly talked about in the book but whose direct perspective the reader hasn’t experienced. It was fascinating to see exactly how she got to her present situation less than a year after her arrival to New Zealand. Same with Lydia Wells, who is one of the most terrifying characters in this entire novel.

I keep bringing up the actual structure (fixating on the different parts and their lengths) because I felt like everything about this novel, down to the structure, was so well-executed and masterful. As I mentioned, Part I was a doozy and could’ve been a complete book on its own at 361 pages. Part II is a bit shorter, at about 150 pages, and so on until Part V (50 pages), down to the final parts which are less than ten pages. This created a sense of urgency, especially as the reader was taken back a year in time and able to see the origin stories of a lot of these character relationships that have been so badly tarnished or drastically changed by the following year (where we kicked the novel off). As the reader gets closer and closer to getting the full picture, the pace picks up to match that sense of urgency. It was incredible! Never underestimate an intentionally-lengthed (not a word) chapter.

This was such an amazing book and I am beyond impressed by the way Eleanor Catton was able to tie it all together. The fact that she could write such a gripping novel about a single date in which three mysterious events took place, clock it in at 800+ pages, and keep it thoroughly entertaining throughout is incredible to me.

Fate played a large part throughout the novel, and there was clear symbolism 20190202_130920represented by the months in a year and corresponding astrological signs. Each new Part began with a chart similar to this one, mapping out the skies. I’m very casually into astrology (meaning I know what sign I am, and vaguely what that means, personality-wise) so when I saw that the first chapter of Part I was “Mercury in Sagittarius,” I was a bit worried that I was going to end up missing a lot. But the novel stands on its own, whether you have any knowledge of what it means for Mercury to be in Sagittarius. I’m sure that would’ve added some interesting perspective to why certain characters were behaving the way they were, though, so if you’re well-versed in the planetary movements, I’m sure you’ll doubly love it.

Alright I’ve gone on gushing for too long. I loved this book and was beyond impressed by the way it came together, as I mentioned. The elements of mystery were spot on for me, in that the book wasn’t asking the traditional “whodunnit” question, but rather the much broader “why do people do the things they do, and what are they motivated by” mystery. But still, at the center of this story was a murder (or three), a missing person, possible suicide attempt, and some very sketchy business dealings, so those philosophical questions zeroed in on this specific night of January 14, 1866, and this specific cast of characters to make an attempt at answering. AHHH, so good. Perfect and genius 🙂

I’m so happy I kicked the year off with this one. I would say the only slow parts were in Part I, because there was a lot of background to get through as the reader needed to become at least somewhat familiar with twelve very different men, and five or six periphery characters who would clearly hold a lot of significance in the novel. But I think half of that was just the daunting task of holding an 800-page book open at page 15, and so clearly seeing the physical representation of the “work” you were going to have to put in. I predict that’s going to be my biggest hurdle in the 2019 reading challenge, but only time will tell.

Alright! I’ll stop talking! I’m off to speed read two (much shorter) novels for my respective book clubs coming up, which I’m hoping will be a nice palette cleanser. Then it’ll be off to complete another intimidating one, which I haven’t selected yet. Please go read The Luminaries if you haven’t yet, you will not regret it. ◊

Unconfirmed suspicion tends, over time, to become wilful, fallacious, and prey to the vicissitudes of mood—it acquires all the qualities of common superstition—and the men of the Crown Hotel, whose nexus of allegiance is stitched, after all, in the bright thread of time and motion, have, like all men, no immunity to influence… But there is no truth except truth in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating, never still. We are no longer sheltered in a cloistered reminiscence of the past. We now look outward, through the phantasm of our own convictions: we see the world as we wish to perfect it, and we imagine dwelling there.”

—page 364

“There was a snatch of something in her head, a maxim. A woman fallen has no future; a man risen has no past. Had she heard it spoken somewhere? Or had she composed it of her own accord?”

—page 826

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