Thanks to the wonderful reductions that Sainsbury’s have on their books, I was able to purchase the beautiful hardback version og this year’s Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries, for half price. This is marvellous because the book is massive, and massive books are always so inviting in hardback. I have tentatively looked at the back and it looks like it is over 800 pages long! The commitment!
I am currently on page 170 and I feel like we have only really scratched the surface of the story. It is all very mysterious, and there is quite a bit of stuff about astrology, which I don’t understand. Fortunately, it is only on the chapter headings and the nice diagrams at present, and I assume it is all going to become clear later.
The book is set in New Zealand in 1866. There is a gold rush, which I didn’t know about, and many men from all over the globe have come to seek their fortunes. This includes both in the gold fields and also in the peripheral professions such as shipping, gaoler, landlords etc. The tale opens with Walter Moody, a young Scottish man who has left Britain under the cloud of a family quarrel and ended up in the town of Hokitika, where he intends to prospect for gold. On his first night, he encounters a group of twelve men, all with very different backgrounds, who are all conspiring. Upon hearing a little of Moody’s journey, they become interested in him and try to wrangle information from him. Moody, however, notices the unusual interest and demands to know their secret before divulging any of his own.
So far, I believe that the focus of the men’s interest is one Francis Carver, who captained the ship that brought Moody to them. Carver appears to be at the centre of a tangled web of intrigue. He claims to be the brother of a man recently dead under what may be suspicious circumstances. He appears to be working with his sister-in-law (although there is speculation over whether he is the true brother and she is the true wife), both to acquire a mysterious amount of gold found in the dead man’s cabin, and to defraud a local politician, Mr Lauderback. Other circumstances start to come to light which may or may not have bearing on this; a missing shipping crate, a whore who has taken an opium overdose, and a quarrel with the Chinese over the quality of opium. Plus, Walter Moody has secrets of his own.
This is a sprawling story, with multiple narrators and a tremendous amount of detail. I am struggling to hold all the information in my head, particularly if I go a few days between reading. However, when I am reading it is utterly absorbing. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Wilkie Collins; different cultures, drugs, villainy, but set in New Zealand. I find that very interesting, not least because New Zealand is not somewhere I know a great deal about. The culture seems not dissimilar to the Californian gold rush, and indeed some of the characters have travelled to New Zealand having exhausted the gold potential of America. The town of Hokitika has a curious temporary air, and it seems to be on the cusp of conventional civilisation. In this age of surveillance and internet profiles, it is curiously foreign to remember how fluid identity could be in those days. You can turn up in a whole new country, give a name that may not be your own, and no-one is any the wiser. It’s fascinating.
It is definitely a book you need to commit to, not because the writing is difficult, but because the strands of the plot are so intricate. I am discovering very quickly that I can’t just dip in and out when I feel like it. However, I get the feeling that it’s going to be worth it.