It's 1866 in the gold town of Hokitika, New Zealand. Walter Moody, a young man seeking his fortune on the goldfields, rocks up in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel to find a group of twelve men who've gathered to discuss a series of crimes in which they all seem to be implicated, unwillingly but damningly. A rich prospector is missing; the town's favourite whore has been found half-dead of opium; a friendless hermit has drunk himself to death.
So begins The Luminaries, a novel which is frankly quite astonishing in its range and scope. The central mystery, founded on a mesh of circumstances which look absolutely impenetrable, is unpicked slowly yet surely, with needle-sharp delicacy. Catton picks up a story and turns it from side to side, looking at it from every possible angle, so that the picture builds up not chronologically but piece by piece, link by unfathomable link, so that the whole tapestry isn't revealed until the very end.
It's a story, in part, about astrology, and this is perhaps the first time in my life I've actually wanted to know more about that particular branch of mysticism, simply because I feel there's a lot I'm missing. The twelve men of the Crown are each conceived of as a separate stellar house; seven more central characters are planetary influences; the dead hermit is Earth; each part of the book (twelve in total, of course) comes with its own horoscope chart; each chapter is named after a zodiacal event ("True Node in Virgo", to take an example at random). I get the feeling there's something very subtle and interesting going on here that I don't quite understand - which is, of course, the point of astrology.
I have to say that the ultra-short chapters and parts that start happening toward the end of the book were kind of annoying, because there isn't really time to absorb the events and scenes of those chapters, but that's a minor point. The Luminaries is just a terrific novel, inhabited by a motley cast of finely-drawn characters who are charismatic, often tragic, and real, living in a world at once romantic and ruthless and very beautiful.