Book Wake

Following good stories wherever they lead

Strange Phases: The Luminaries


An intricate Victorian-era tale of colliding lives on the New Zealand frontier, with plenty of vendettas, affairs, and mysterious occurrences in the mist.

Rating: 4 out of 5 mugs

If you’re in the mood forVictorian manners amid gold-rush fervor, with a heavy layer of mysticism and plenty of complicated machinations. 

Walter Moody is hoping to escape his past, but first he needs to survive the landing.

Coming into Hokitika harbor, Moody’s ship of passage, The Godspeed, is reeling under a terrible gale — and more than a few ships have already met their end on this perilous journey to New Zealand. Land of gold and frigid mists, land of luck and heartbreak, here men make their fortunes or die trying.

When we meet Walter, he is recovering from his ordeal in the smoking room at The Crown Hotel. He has taken up a glass to soothe his nerves…and utterly failed to notice the odd behaviors of the men around him. Walter Moody, it happens, has interrupted a secret council. One that involves an attempted suicide — or murder — a stolen fortune, and plenty of suspicion. Soon, we’ll get to meet the players of this mystery, and make our own predictions.

I found the structure of this book both intriguing and slightly intimidating — each section is preceded with an astrological chart, presumably foretelling certain elements of plot or character. Extremely interesting to examine, but it also left me with the feeling that I’ve missed a whole layer of meaning that this novel intended. Three things this book is not: light, simple, and short.

For all its length and complexity, however, it kept me hooked. Part of this had to do with the narrative tone — I am a sucker for anything 19th century in prose. It is a personal weakness. I know many people find this type of tone stiff at best, and dead boring at worst, but Catton brings a freshness and clarity to it that reminds me of Eliot.

But even if the voice doesn’t grab you, the characters might — or rather, the novel’s treatment of a diverse and complex set of personalities in a harsh frontier setting. People are interconnected and tangled up in each others’ webs, and one of the joys of this novel is being able to view it all through a removed lens. It’s at a top caliber for character analysis; the narration dips into examinations of the quirks, habits, preferences, values, miseries and dreams of nearly every figure in a manner that reads like a personal star chart. Often we weave in and out of these moments of examination in reveries that cast a dream-like shroud on the surrounding actions.

The telling itself is similarly labyrinthine and obscure — it’s not so much a puzzle coming together as a dance, of masked partners, in candlelight. Part of what kept me reading was curiosity, but most of it related to sheer enjoyment of the rhythm and patterns of the players in motion.

And it’s a good thing, too, because the conclusion is by no means conventional or straightforward. It’s not off-putting, though, because it so thoroughly fits the tenor of the entire book. If you’re dissatisfied with the ending, it’s likely you haven’t been enjoying much along the way either.

It’s a strange journey and a long one, but there are insights and scenes — like the sea light over the rocky shores of New Zealand, diffusing the mist — that will stay with you. Set aside some time if you can for this tale, and be prepared to dive deep.


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This entry was posted on January 14, 2015 by in Mystery.
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