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Bookends: A Tale of Deception and Death in the New Zealand Gold Rush January 2, 2014

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: A Tale of Deception and Death in the New Zealand Gold Rush

By Dan Davidson

December 23, 2013


– 905 words –


The Luminaries

By Eleanor Catton

McClelland & Stewart

848 pages



If you wanted a quick summary of the main inciting incidents in The Luminaries, you could go to the final section, “Part Twelve: The Old Moon in the Young Moon’s Arms”. The section is dated 13 days prior to the opening chapter and would probably make no sense at all, unless, as Huck Finn once said of himself, you had read the intervening 840 or so pages.

That last section is the briefest in the book, and the italicized “In which …” style prologue that introduces it is far and away longer than the chapter itself, which is all dialogue.

Catton, who won both the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the 2013 Governor General’s Award for what is, in essence, a massive murder mystery, chose to name each of the twelve sections with terms relating to the Zodiac, and the major characters, of which there are enough to require a chart, are assigned astrological values. As someone who knows nothing about any of this arcane study, I was happy to discover that my lack of understanding did not affect my enjoyment of the story.

We begin with the arrival of Walter Moody in the New Zealand mining settlement of Hokitika (a real place with a mining history – you can look it up) on January 17, 1866, nearly a fortnight after events of some significance have impacted the lives of the twelve men he finds sitting in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel. Moody has come to join the New Zealand gold rush and seek his fortune, but he ends up being the disinterested auditor of a series of narratives which take up close to 360 pages on the book’s first section.

One by one these mostly unreliable narrators bend his ear and tell what they know of the strange events surrounding the death of Crosbie Wells and the disappearance of the town’s wealthiest citizen, Emery Staines. Finally there is the collapse, apparently of an opium overdose, of a much sought after prostitute named Anna Wetherell. Some of the accounts are so at odds with each other that it is actually a bit of a relief to have the main points summarized later in the book. It helps us to have some shape imposed on a series of mysterious events.

“So I am to be the unraveller,” Moody thought. “The detective: that is the role I am to play.”

Like many of the observations made to themselves by people in this novel, that turns out to be only partly the case. These people tend to view themselves in a better light than others see them, and interpret events in that light. It’s not exactly lying, but it is certainly far from the actual truth in many cases. Nevertheless, I suppose they could be seen as the luminaries of the title, as it is mostly their impressions and reactions that move the story forward and reveal its secrets.

The narrative, divided into all of these points of view, and only sometimes filtered through Moody, ranges back and forth through time, and establishes that a number of the main characters have connections running back quite a number of years, connections that come as a surprise but do help to unlock some of the mysteries in the tale. There have been plots and counter-plots, deceptions and revelations galore. Much of background presented in the later chapters actually takes place about one year before the opening of the book.

All of these events are unfolded for us under the watchful idea of a very 19th century style omniscient observer, who prefaces his chapters with such notes as “In which Lydia Wells is as good as her word; Anna Wetherell receives an unexpected visitor; and we learn the truth about Elizabeth Mackay.”

Some of them, like this one near the climax of a trial, are a little more vague in order to avoid being spoilers: “In which two verdicts are delivered, and justice fits the sentence to the crime.”

The book opens slowly with an almost ponderous first section. Each of the succeeding 11 chapters is shorter than the one before it, until the narrative seems to have picked up a breakneck speed. An avalanche picks up speed and mass as it careens down a mountainside. The Luminaries manages to pick up speed and significance while shedding mass.

We are claiming Eleanor Catton as one of our own by virtue of her having been born in London, Ontario, where her father was working on his doctorate. The family returned to New Zealand with she was six, and she was educated in New Zealand and England. Her first novel, The Rehearsal, was drafted as her Master’s thesis, and earned her the distinction of being the youngest author to be short listed for the Man Booker when she was 27. At 28 she became the youngest writer to win the prize, and did so with the longest book ever to win the prize.

I think I would recommend waiting to pick this one up in a trade or paperback edition. I read it as a Kobo e-book and attempting to flip back though the pages to settle my mind on some plot point was tedious and got in the way of the story.







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