The Luminaries is a Victorian melodrama/mystery. It opens with a death and an apparent suicide attempt, the arrival in a west New Zealand port of a stranger, and the gathering of a cabal of locals who are all somewhat involved in the deaths. We know all that early — Catton spends most of the novel sketching in the background and delays until the end the full details of her story.
It is also worth noting that the author uses two other devices within the novel. One that I did understand was the use of the golden mean of mathematics — each chapter contains half as many words as the previous ones. That means the first chapter is 360 pages — the last three (of twelve) total 17. Yes, it is a gimmick — but it does add momentum as we come to the conclusion in the novel’s final 150 pages. Her other device, a consistent reference to astrological symbols and relationships, completely passed me by — and I will admit I have read no review that explained why it added to the novel.
The Luminaries would have been my second choice of those I have read on the Booker shortlist (I’ll be reading Lahiri’s The Lowland later; Ozecki’s A Tale for the Time Being has no appeal for me), after Jim Crace’s Harvest — and I will admit that one had a particular personal appeal as you will discover if you read my review. Certainly, I have no quarrel with the Booker Jury’s decision, although it is a surprise. By way of example, on Trevor’s Booker forum, the Crace had 11 out of 14 first place votes — Catton had only one.
Every bit as interesting for we Canadians, however, is what the Real Giller Prize Jury will have to say. The Luminaries was eligible — and did not even make the long list. I’m guessing, but I would suggest that Catton’s authorly “gimmicks” (I mean that as descriptive, not judgmental) landed well with the Booker Jury, but were a big problem for the Giller threesome.