The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Awards, drew my attention because I usually enjoy historical fiction, and I have always been fascinated by the gold rush and how people would risk everything they have in the odd chance of striking it rich.
The book starts when 12 men meet on 27 January 1866 in the smoking room of a hotel to discuss the extraordinary events that took place in the gold rush town of Hokitika, New Zealand. A man is dead, another has disappeared and a prostitute was found unconscious in the middle of the road. This mystery drives most of the book, along with the love story between Anna Wetherell, the prostitute, and Emery Staines, the rich man who disappeared. Eleanor Catton knows how to finish each chapter with a cliffhanger to build the suspense, and her descriptions are rich and evocative. In addition, the book’s structure is very original as chapters are arranged according to the position of the planets above 19th-century New Zealand, and the 12 main characters correspond to the 12 signs of the zodiac. I must say that I am not too familiar with astrology so this aspect of the book was lost on me, but I imagine people in the know would be intrigued by this.
Overall, The Luminaries definitely deserved the awards it won for its originality and its engrossing story. This is a book I highly recommend.
Fun facts about the book and the author:
- Eleanor Catton was born in London, Ontario, Canada but was raised in New Zealand.
- She was the youngest author to win the Man Booker Prize (she was 28 at the time).
- Her father was a philosophy professor and her mother a librarian. They had no TV and no car.
- In The Luminaries, Anna Wetherell’s gowns conceal gold in the seams. This is a historical fact, as miners sometimes hid their gold to avoid paying taxes, and women became their mules.
- The title of the book is an astrological term. It refers to the sun (extrovert = Emery Staines) and the moon (introvert = Anna Wetherell).
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