The book opens about two weeks after a miner turned logger is found dead in his cabin of apparently natural causes and a prostitute near death is picked up on the road into the town of Hokitika. Twelve men have gathered to try to piece together the mystery of how that miner died, why £4000 of gold was found in his cabin, why gold was found in the prostitute's dress, where a politician's missing steamer trunk went, and find the truth behind what could either be a series of disparate coincidences or a vast conspiracy. The twelve are interrupted by a thirteenth, a lawyer turned miner named Walter Moody who has just come in on the latest boat to Hokitika.
|Hokitika, New Zealand, in the 1870s. Via WikiCommons.|
Little by little, the puzzle pieces start to fall into place. Like the characters in the book, who are on the periphery of what really happened, I felt like a person assembling a puzzle from the edges in. There was something in the middle, but I wasn't sure what it was. Was it just a tangle of misadventures? Was there a criminal mastermind behind it all, planning a dozen steps ahead? The Luminaries demands careful, slow reading and a good memory. And even Sherlock Holmes would have to smoke several pipes to get to the bottom of this one.
Is it worth reading 800 pages to find out what happens? I think this book isn't for everyone. It's gracefully written. I loved the way the author was able to write in an ever narrowing spiral that looped around from past to present and back again while revealing a little more of the core story. (But I would hate to play poker with Catton.) Just for sheer craft, this book is incredible. However, I think some people will get frustrated with this book. Even though it's cleanly written, the events in the book and their outcomes are anything but clean and tidy. If you like your historical fiction messy and true to life, The Luminaries will be an intriguing read.