Author: Eleanor Catton
Publisher: Granta, London, 2013
Pages: 832 Price in India: Rs799
There are some books which extract a sigh of relief from us as we turn their last page. The winner of the 2013 Booker Prize belongs to that category. You feel relieved that it has come to an end at last. You feel like a child who has successfully put together all the pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle after a gruelling struggle.
14 Jan 1866. Crosbie Wells is found dead in his cottage. Anna Wetherell is found almost dead elsewhere. Emery Staines has vanished. Francis Carver has sailed away in a barque that he bought from Alistair Lauderback presenting himself as Crosbie Wells. An amount of 4000 pounds (a huge sum in those days) is missing. Alistair Lauderback has a connection with the real Crosbie Wells which the former does not want to acknowledge.
832 pages are devoted to unravel the above mysteries which are all related to one another. Hokitika had many gold mines and a lot of people went over there in order to build up their fortunes. Eleanor Catton brings together in her voluminous novel about a score of such fortune seekers in Hokitika whose destinies become entangled in a web of fraudulent activities perpetrated by a handful of unscrupulous individuals within the motley group.
“There’s no charity in a gold town. If it looks like charity, look again,” is Crosbie’s advice to Anna Wetherell who has landed newly in Hokitika and has been chaperoned by Lydia Wells. Lydia is too kind to Anna. “There is no such thing as too much kindness,” Lydia would soon warn Anna. Warnings notwithstanding, 21 year-old, beautiful Anna, “a breath of fresh air... Unspoiled” (in Crosbie’s perspicacious evaluation), becomes a whore in Hokitika.
There is no place for any romantic idealists and seekers in a gold town. Anna is not the only such person who becomes a victim of the gold town’s value system. Emery Staines is a young man with boyish charms, physically as well as psychologically. He is “a curious mixture of longing and enthusiasm... delighted by things of an improbable or impractical nature, which he sought out with the open-hearted gladness of a child at play.” He will learn the utterly practical side of life in the hard way.
The villains don’t escape, however. Not entirely at least. Some of them get the retribution they deserve. Is there any fair system of justice in the world? “A woman fallen has no future; a man risen has no past.” That’s what Anna seems to learn at one stage, though later Emery Staines will open “a new chamber of (her) heart.” There indeed is a place for romantic idealism and love even in a gold town. Like in any other place, however, the idealism will have to undergo the seasoning processes in some excruciating crucibles.
The Luminaries is not an easy novel to read. The very thickness of the book can be a Himalayan challenge. The plot is engrossing, but the development is drawn out so long as to try the reader’s patience. Catton also fails in unfolding the inner personalities of her characters by means of what they say and do; she takes recourse to detailed descriptions of her characters in her own words.
Those who love difficult reading and want to spend time during the summer vacation (as I’m doing) can go for this novel. It is a good challenge to take up. The last parts of the novel may put you off further with their cinematographic technique of providing still shots in order to complete the missing parts of the gargantuan jigsaw puzzle. But you can put down the book with the satisfaction that the puzzle was worth solving and has been solved perfectly.