Can we ever really solve a mystery, given that investigators and witnesses alike view reality from their own, shifting, perspectives?
That's the question at the heart of this massive and impeccably written mystery set in a New Zealand gold rush town in the 1860s, the second novel by an Ontario-born New Zealander whose 2007 first novel, The Rehearsal, won or was shortlisted for an armful of prizes.
Not yet 30, Eleanor Catton has already been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for this novel, which combines a huge cast of characters with a tangled mystery and pitch-perfect period phrasing, set amid several layers of British Empire class and race.
The Luminaries is being hyped as Charles Dickens meets Deadwood, and there's something to that.
Catton brilliantly captures a Victorian voice throughout; one of the book's great pleasures is the series of elegant and sometimes arch Dickensian character sketches she uses to introduce each of her characters.
And her frontier gold rush setting -- with opium addicts, Chinese labourers, brothel owners and compromised figures of legal authority -- is like an antipodean version of HBO's Deadwood, which was set in that wild and lawless South Dakota town circa 1876.
As you try to keep track of all the characters and their many motivations, secrets, connections and misdirections you might think of a different HBO series. If, like the Baltimore cops in The Wire, you could cover the walls of an abandoned office with a web of names and evidence, you might just keep up with the plot of The Luminaries.
The novel begins on a stormy night, when Scottish would-be prospector Walter Moody stumbles into a secret meeting of 12 seemingly disparate men -- Chinese workers, wealthy businessmen, bureaucrats, a Maori hunter, a Jew, a Norwegian and a Frenchman -- in the town of Hokitika.
It transpires that the 12 have gathered to share their knowledge of a series of incidents in which each is in some way implicated: the death of a hermit-like prospector, the disappearance of a wealthy young prospector and investor, and the beating and drugging of a beautiful opium-addicted prostitute.
Adding to the complexity is an astrological framing device. Each of the 12 men is assigned an astrological sign or constellation (note that the word luminary, though usually used to mean "important person," originally meant a glowing celestial body). Each of seven suspects is assigned the role of a planet. And of course, the relative positions of constellations and planets are continually changing.
What this means for the storytelling of The Luminaries is that as we view the events of the novel from the perspectives of the various participants and observers, we get an ever-shifting understanding of events.
This point is underscored in a few important exchanges.
"You are wonderfully free with one verb, I notice," the scheming villainess, Lydia Wells, asks the legally trained Moody prior to a s©ance that serves as a major scene. "What does it mean for you, Mr. Moody, to know something? I fancy you put rather a lot of stock in knowing -- judging from the way you speak."
Moody answers her, somewhat naively: "I suppose that to know a thing is to see it from all sides."
Later, this theme is repeated by one of the 12 investigating townsmen, a clergyman named Devlin:
"If I have learned one thing from experience, it is this: never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person's point of view."
It isn't always easy to keep track of all the points of view in The Luminaries, but the talent of its author is clear as daylight.
Winnipeg writer Bob Armstrong is a sucker for big novels and long-form television dramas.