Eleanor Catton’s historical suspense novel The Luminaries is built like a triple Decker—one of those 19th-century novels that were so substantial, they were published serially in three volumes. Clocking in at over 800 pages, this pitch-perfect Victorian pastiche set in New Zealand has all the right elements: long-lost siblings, hidden caches of letters, a séance and a villainess so wicked she could have walked right out of a Wilkie Collins novel.

When Walter Moody comes to Hokitika in 1866, it is to make his fortune in the gold fields. At his hotel, he happens upon a meeting of 12 men nervously discussing a rash of mysterious local occurrences. A prostitute has been arrested after overdosing on opium. A wealthy man has disappeared. A recluse was discovered dead in his isolated cabin. Moody is drawn into the intrigue, though he initially keeps his own secrets about the strange events that occurred on his voyage from England. 

Several period devices help tease out the threads of this complex story: multiple narrators; 19th-century slang and circumlocutions such as “d-mned”; and chapter introductions that set the stage for the action to follow. Intriguingly, Catton uses astrology as an organizing device, with star charts at the start of each chapter—which grow shorter and shorter as the book progresses, to imitate the waning of the moon—and the circling of 12 “stellar” characters around eight “planetary” ones.

Like many long novels, The Luminaries lags at times; in some ways, the action concludes long before the novel does, and the wealth of characters and overlapping action make it occasionally difficult to keep track of who did what when. But Catton, whose debut novel, The Rehearsals, was written when she was just 22, balances this with accomplished writing that shows an engaging flair and a real gift for characterization. This multilayered and complex second novel is as much about the sheer enjoyment of reading as it is about solving the crime.

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