Monday, January 21, 2019

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Walter Moody has come to New Zealand to seek his fortune in the gold rush as many others have in 1866.  He has come to the remote coast when the latest gold strike has been reported; a place where ships fight to land their passengers and many ships are broken in the attempt.  Those who manage to get ashore find a small town struggling to provide the accoutrements of civilization and to make a living, either as a miner or as someone who provides a service to the miners.

Moody has arrived at an interesting time.  There are several events that seem to affect many of the people he meets.  A hermit has died, perhaps minutes after a local politician who has come to the town overland to publicize that route has stopped in his home.  A fortune is found in the hermit's cabin and the ownership of that fortune is soon hotly disputed.  A lovely prostitute is found in the road near death's door, victim of the opium that is rampant in the camps.  Her supplier is either the Chinaman who runs an opium den or the pharmacist who sells the drug wholesale.  Soon an unsuspected wife of the hermit arrives to claim his fortune but perhaps that fortune is not really his.  The wealthiest man in town has gone missing at the same time and as the days and weeks go by, he is soon believed to be dead.  There is evidence of identity fraud and someone scheming to get rich at the expense of others. 

Through it all, there is human frailty and emotions.  There are men who have hidden secrets about their family and those who are attempting to form new families.  There are romantic partnerships, some which seem to be forged in love and others in an attempt to join forces to gain an end.  There are friendships made and struck down; men who have come to impose their will on the land and others and men who have come to make a new start.  Always there is the gold, the gold that fuels dreams and schemes, that makes men do things they never thought they would. 

This novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2013.  It deserved the prize on many levels.  It is an interesting history of New Zealand and the gold strikes that help build the nation.  It has an interesting structure, with a zodiac reference to each chapter and a plot that is backloaded with explanations coming at the end.  The myriad storylines merge cunningly and leave the reader with a sense of resolution.  Finally, the author demonstrates without lecturing that striving for gold and fortune is a fool's folly; that love and friendship are the true gold in life.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

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