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The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton's epic mystery, set in 19th-century New Zealand, is the winner of this year's Man Booker Prize.

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The Luminaries,
by Eleanor Catton,
Little Brown,
848 pages

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Reviewed by Anna Mundow for Barnes & Noble Review

In Eleanor Catton's intricate and enthralling novel The Luminaries, the only thing missing may be a deadly snake or two slithering down a bedpost to strike an heir whose fortune is coveted by an evil twin. Catton's plot certainly has everything else:  smuggled gold, shipwrecks, opium, forgery, stolen identities, séances, Chinese, Presbyterians. Had Robert Louis Stevenson or Wilkie Collins managed to collaborate with Joseph Conrad or Amitav Ghosh, this might have been the result. But Catton is far more than an inspired mimic, as the novel's opening scene makes gloriously clear.

On the evening of January 27, 1866, twelve men have gathered in the smoking room of a hotel in the gold-mining town of Hokitika, New Zealand. A newcomer observes that "...the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate... conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway – deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain." Young Walter Moody, freshly arrived from Scotland to prospect for gold, is at first unaware that he has disturbed a private conference. Yet the air is heavy with tension, conveyed in glances and silence.

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