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Key mysteries

The Luminaries

Title: The Luminaries
By: Eleanor Catton

The gold rush in New Zealand! After a disturbing and eerie experience on the ship he arrived on, Walter Moody stumbles upon a disparate group of men in the back room of a hotel—men with competing and compelling stories to tell. If you love densely interwoven, multi-charactered historical fiction, please read this. It’s a fabulous brain-teaser, complete with astrological charts at the head of each section. Using a key at the front of the book and the horoscopes, you perhaps may predict which characters will connect, frustrate, aid or bewilder each other. I did not succeed in unraveling that mystery. But I do think I understand why this book won the 2013 Man Booker Prize: structural genius, authentic dialog, and excellent character development.

As the plot thickened I was mesmerized by the twists and turns and by observing the characters unfold. Thank goodness some of the key mysteries are revealed at the end of the book.

Knowledge of what an ascendant or a trine is adds an extra layer of depth to The Luminaries, but one doesn't have to be an astrology expert to appreciate its role in the story. Astrology is the perfect framework for this novel for two reasons.

As a personality sorting system, it captures the sheer diversity of the characters involved in any gold rush. There are indigenous Maori, Chinese coolies, Frenchmen, Jews, Scandinavians, second-generation New Zealand settlers, and immigrants from every far-flung corner of the British Empire. There are paupers, indentured laborers, aristocrats fallen on hard times, nouveau riche capitalists, and every social class in between. There are introverts, extroverts, reckless gamblers, dutiful workers, despairing opium addicts, conniving opportunists and almost every other personality archetype one can imagine: twelve to correlate to the signs of the zodiac, with another seven to match the classical planets. How else can one describe the juxtaposition of a Chinese drug dealer dragged into participating in a Victorian séance and an obese, pistol-wielding goldfields magnate than the volatile opposition of Air and Fire?

Furthermore, astrology reflects the mining town's obsession with the thin line between Fortune and Fate. Why does one man strike it rich while another fails miserably? Is it entirely random? Are certain individuals predestined for success by the stars? Or are there conspiracies afoot? (Spoiler: there are, though that doesn't preclude other explanations). Every detail interacts with every other detail, leading to a convoluted but fascinating chain of cause and effect.


NB: This book was reviewed by 2 staff members, April and Xenon (the latter in bold type), who chose to join forces here.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction

Posted on Nov. 15, 2014 at 1 a.m.

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