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“The Luminaries”: A Gothic cathedral of plot

Eleanor Catton's hefty, Booker Prize-winning novel, "The Luminaries," begins with a young man named Walter Moody arriving in New Zealand during the island's gold rush of the 1860s, shaken by an undescribed "phantom" he witnessed aboard his ship just before it wrecked. He wanders into the smoking room of his hotel to find an unusual assortment of 12 men: Irish, English, Scottish, Maori, Chinese -- all of them weathered by the tough life of the frontier boomtown of Hokitika, and all of them behaving with a studied nonchalance. He's clearly interrupted a conference of some sort.

The boyishly handsome Moody has, as the novel's loftily third-person narrator informs us, "the manner of a discreet and quick-minded butler, and as consequence was often drawn into the confidence of the least voluble of men, or invited to broker relations between people he had only lately met." Despite their wariness, the assembled men soon explain that they've gathered to get to the bottom of a series of inexplicable and troubling events: the death of a prospector in a remote hut; the collapse of Anna Wetherall, a much-liked prostitute, in the main road from an apparently suicidal opium overdose; the discovery of a fortune in gold in two unlikely hiding places; the blackmailing of a rising politician; and the suspiciously hasty sale of a plot of land. Finally, there is the arrival in town of a lady claiming to be the late prospector's wife but also in some obscure way attached to a man named (perhaps) Francis Carver, a man who everyone in the smoking room agrees is a villain. We won't even return to Moody's shipboard phantom until all 12 men have had their say.

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