The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton, Granta, 2013
“There is no truth except truth in relation and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clock work orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating, never still.”
Eleanor Catton, all of 29 years won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her second book, The Luminaries. Born in Canada and raised in New Zealand, Catton had literally travelled pole to pole, wondering at the sky turned upside down and all the restless inhabitants of the firmament, who with their limitless influence on the human life beneath, would partner her in grand and breathtaking story telling. The book begins with the arrival of a stranger in the gold fields of New Zealand in the 19th century. He abruptly enters a stormy world of greed, passion and ambition and soon becomes an impromptu witness and inevitable insider. The intimate world of a digger’s town, rankled by a series of mysteries too incredible even for the schemers and conspirators, is slowly brought to light. It seems as though every man in town has an insignificant piece of the puzzle and a great claim to the outcome of fates. The sea farers, opium traders, masters and slaves are thrown into a devilish world of death, disappearance and treasure. In a land where every fellow is a stranger to the next man and foreign to the soil, the muddied and stained states of affairs conjure up unlikely alliances.
A young heir to great wealth goes missing on a night an infamous prostitute tries to commit suicide. A hermit in the woods ends up dead with immeasurable wealth stowed away in his cottage. A harmless trunk disappears, a strange woman appears with occult powers to exorcise secrets from planets and stars. A rich tapestry unfolds to reveal a brilliant and exquisite story that gradually impacts the reader with a style that is substantial, grounded and strong.
Catton remains true to the moods of strange times in a virgin land that is slowly being ravished by all kinds of men. The subtle pull of tension between the white man and the aborigine, master and slave, man and woman- all of whom covet wealth and safe passage to a serene future- is brought out exceptionally well. The capricious ambience of a gold mine that lures and traps men, smothers and nourishes their ambition, leads to unimaginable conflicts in the lives of the characters. In a land where one wills his destiny through the sheer acuity of one’s perception as if one is playing at whist, death and danger lurk like shadows. The only thing that is fixed and unassailable is what the mythical stars weave with their cold hands over slouch hats and flayed corpses- inchoate tales of elusive destinies. A brilliant book from a promising author!