cover image The Luminaries

The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton. Little, Brown, $27 (848p) ISBN 978-0-316-07431-5

With a knack for conveying robust detail in an economy of straightforward language, Catton (The Rehearsal) untangles a dazzling knot of interwoven lives to explain how the town hermit, Crosbie Wells, wound up dead and the town whore, Anna Wetherell, drugged and disoriented. Her chosen setting%E2%80%94the New Zealand gold rush, and central figure%E2%80%94the fish-out-of-water Walter Moody, contribute to an atmosphere ripe for storytelling. And, from the beginning, this is the heart-pounding sport of the manifold suspects, witnesses, and possible accomplices. The shipping merchant Balfour tells of receiving politician Lauderback's tale of mischief, of involvement with one Lydia Wells...or Carver...or Greenway, she who is supposedly the wife of both the hermit Wells and his purportedly murderous brother, Francis Carver; and she who represents the planetary force of desire. Lauderback's recounting of lascivious involvement with her gives way to the story of the thug Carver overtaking Lauderback's vessel the Godspeed and setting the politician up for a fall, which gives way to an Irish Free Methodist minister overhearing the divulgence and adding his bit: he attended to both the whore and the deceased hermit. His story opens onto another, which inspires another, and so forth. With a calculated old-world syntax by which the tamest of swear words are truncated, Catton artfully restrains her verse, and she occasionally breaks the fourth wall%E2%80%94reminding readers that this story is about, above all things, the excitement of storytelling. (Oct.)