A Constellation of Words: The Luminaries

About three years ago I entered a bookshop in Quebec City with the sole intention to buy a book in French. I must say I failed miserably and bought a beautiful copy of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries* instead. I did buy some books in French later, but I am ashamed to admit that my French hasn’t improved much. I remember reading the first few pages of The Luminaries and liking it, but thinking that it required more attention that I could give it at the time of the trip, and so I decided to read it back home.

As it often happens, once I got back home the book ended on my nightstand for a long time before being relocated in my room and bookshelves several times. I did not attempt to read it again until this week when I didn’t feel like reading any of the books I have recently bought ran out of reading material. I’m glad I did.

The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and made Eleanor Catton the youngest author to have ever received it (she was 28). And what a novel it is! I can’t but wonder at Catton’s organisational skills, putting together such an intricately structured novel must be really hard. The book is about a series of crimes taking place in 1866 in Hokitika, New Zealand. Although seemingly disconnected, we begin to discover that these crimes and other strange events are in fact closely related. The novel is a wonderful mystery set in New Zealand’s Gold Rush, in which millionaires, bank clerks, whores and sea captains are involved.

The book begins with an assembly. Twelve men whose reputations have been compromised by the recent events—among them a disappearance, the attempted murder of a whore and the death of a hermit— gather at the local pub to share their knowledge and try to make sense of the events. There, they’re interrupted by a newcomer, Walter Moody, who seems to be himself afflicted by something. As the men start talking, the story begins to unravel.

What is striking about these stories is the manner in which they’re introduced. The book’s narrative comprises only a few dates from the 27th of January 1866 onwards. However, as the characters start telling their stories, we are taken back and forth in time, hearing different angles of every situation. Catton’s style is exquisite, combining some elements from 19th-century novels—I was reminded a bit of Anne Brontë and George Elliot— with whimsical and mysterious commentaries that resonate with the book’s astronomical theme.

The book’s grounding in astrology and astronomy makes it such a complex and interesting read. First off, every one of the 12 characters reunited at the inn is related to a different Zodiac sign. Also, each chapter is called after some astronomical phenomenon: as the novel advances, we get to link the celestial bodies’ positions with the decisions, dispositions and paths of each of the characters.

The plot of the novel is very intricate, crafted with such care that it resembles the internal mechanism of a clock: every turn of events influences a range of other events that in turn influence others. In the end, the fates of twelve strangers looking for fortunes in New Zealand’s gold turn out to be very much connected, in ways they can’t even begin to understand.

Needless to say, I was fascinated by this novel. I am still in awe at the way it is organised, but more so at how it manages to be a such a page-turner despite its complexity: it has a lot of characters, around 800 pages, various settings and the reader has to keep in mind many dates (and planets and signs, really) just to keep up. And yet there’s so much precision and beauty in its descriptions and so much intrigue in its plot that one can’t help but keep reading.

I am very happy to have read it and a bit sad that it is over. I can’t wait to read Catton’s other works. Have you read The Luminaries? What did you think of it? I am currently starting with The Secret History* by Donna Tartt, another book I have been meaning to read for a while. I am reading it for the Penguin Reading Challenge! You can join here to receive a list of books to choose from every month.

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My Top Ten Agatha Christie Mysteries

The right title for this post should be “Top Ten Christie’s Mysteries So Far”. Agatha Christie published around 80 mystery novels and many more short story collections during her lifetime and I haven’t read all of them… yet.

Mystery is definitely one of my favourite genres, and one I think few writers manage to master in the way Agatha Christie did. I believe that, along with Conan Doyle and Poe, she redefined crime novels, narratively and structurally. So, without further ado and because I’m the mood for mystery, I present to you my 10 favourite Christies (so far!).

Sparkling Cyanide

This was my first Christie! I still remember how thrilled I was to read this one, and how surprised I was at the end. No Poirot or Miss Marple here, but we have Colonel Race, a much quieter and traditional detective that appears in a couple of books. In Sparkling Cyanide*, the handsome, clever and rich Rosemary Barton sits at a table among her friends and family. The lights go out for a moment and, when they’re turned back on, she’s dead. Curiously enough, everybody at the table had at least one reason to want her dead, so who killed her?

And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie was the queen of mystery, but also the queen of ruining nursery songs. “First there were ten”, ten strangers invited to a private island, each of them suspecting (but not knowing) who their host is or why they were invited. Each of them hiding something. And then they start disappearing, one by one… And Then There Were None* is easily the creepiest book by Agatha Christie I have read.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Umberto Eco praised this book for the impressive and innovative narrative style, and it’s really just awesome how Christie manages to pull this off. Do you ever read the ending of a mystery and then go back and double-check if everything makes sense? I almost always do, but when I did that with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd*, I was mindblown. Also, this is one of Hercule Poirot’s first cases.

Five Little Pigs

On this one, Hercule Poirot has to solve a crime that happened sixteen years before, and for which someone has already been committed. After the murder of her husband, Caroline Crale was declared guilty and sent to prison, but now her granddaughter is convinced of her innocence and hires Poirot to prove it. There were five people, “five little pigs”, with the Crales the day of the murder, can Poirot gather any evidence to suspect any of them? Five Little Pigs* will ruin another nursery rhyme for you, too.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The first Poirot mystery! This is a locked-door mystery in which an old woman is poisoned in her mansion, Styles. There are plenty of suspects, among them Hastings and Poirot, who happen to be staying there at the time. I think The Mysterious Affair at Styles* sets a pattern in Poirot Mysteries: mansions and elderly, rich women who happen to be murdered.

Murder at the Vicarage

The first Miss Marple! How can an elderly lady solve the murder of Colonel Protheroe, shot through the head at the local vicarage, almost without leaving her home? Mostly gossip and an exacerbated ability to read people, really.

The Body in the Library

A young and eccentric woman is found dead in the library of wealthy Colonel Bantry. Miss Marple joins forces with police officers to solve this one, and seems like Bantry has much more to hide. The Body in the Library* shows a Miss Marple ready for action, much bolder than the one from Murder at the Vicarage*.

Peril at End House

A young heiress hires Poirot to protect her after various almost-fatal accidents: she thinks someone’s trying to kill her. This leads to Poirot staying at Peril House, a creepy mansion on the Cornish shore. I like Peril at End House* because the crime has not yet happened when Poirot starts to investigate, and the constant danger makes it more thrilling.

At Bertram’s Hotel

I honestly think Miss Marple is my favourite detective, and her powers of observation are displayed to their full extent in this novel. This one was my first Miss Marple, and I just loved the atmosphere and detail of the novel. Here, Miss Marple takes a holiday at Bertram’s Hotel in London just when a series of bloody events start taking place. At Bertram’s Hotel* is different from other Miss Marple novels because it dwells more with the mafia and money-related crimes than with murders. How Jane Marple finds herself involved in all these sinister events is amazingly entertaining.

Dead Man’s Folly

This one is just delightful. There’s a recurrent character in Agatha Christie’s novels that is a crime novelist: Adriane Oliver. She’s friends with Poirot and in this book she’s invited to a mock murder hunt but, you guessed it, the murder happens for real. Dead Man’s Folly* is so sinister and fun, it’s like a night of playing Clue gone wrong.

Have you read any of these? What are your favourite Christies? I am currently reading and loving The Luminaries* by Eleanor Catton and I am definitely in the mood for more mystery books, do you have any suggestions?

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*Disclaimer: If you do buy any of the books mentioned through these links, I will receive a commission. This does not affect the prices whatsoever.