We all know the American gold rushes of the mid-19th century. Images from those years leap to mind: somewhere in the Californian desert, a prospector hammers in wooden pegs to stake his claim. Deep in the Yukon at dusk, a wolf howls in the blue distance, then one by one the rest of the pack join in. Miners huddle round the low-burnt fire, touch their rifles for reassurance. Sergio Leone and Jack London are the laureates of these landscapes.
But the New Zealand gold rush? I wasn't aware of its existence until I read Eleanor Catton's vast and intricate novel "The Luminaries", set in the township of Hokitika in 1866. Out of Catton's patient prose emerges a world so completely realised that you feel part of its population. Gold has been found in the sands and rivers of the South Island, and Hokitika teems with speculators, aggregators, bankers and outfitters. Up and down the west coast the diggers toil, delving for the sly glint of ore. Eastwards of Hokitika the land rises into totara forests, rolling hills and clear-watered rivers whose beds are cobbled with "smooth, milky-grey stones that, when split, showed a glassy-green interior, harder than steel" — the sacred Maori stone known as pounamu. And over all of this loom the Southern Alps, ice-capped and incorruptible.
The novel unfolds a mystery. A haul of gold has been discovered in a hermit's cottage: its provenance is unclear, its ownership disputed. Death stalks the land in the guise of lucre. The reader's first task is — as Lester Freamon puts it in "The Wire" — to follow the money. That pursuit takes us forwards and backwards in time, and through the varied landscapes of the South Island. As we move from place to place, expanding our imagined geography, so the plot whirs on — gorgeous and complex as an orrery.
For a novel set in such wild country, it often takes us indoors: in bar-rooms, billiard-rooms and court-rooms, in shanty-shacks and opium dens where smokers lie supine. These interiors are evoked in exceptional detail. Catton's narrator seems to notice everything, down to the seam that runs through the centre of the billiard-table baize, from when it "had been sawn in two on the Sydney docks to better survive the crossing".
I first read "The Luminaries" as a judge of the Man Booker prize for fiction last year. Without that compulsion I might never have picked it up, put off by its cubical bulk and astrological armature. What a loss that would have been! I have now read it three times — 2,496 pages in sum — and each reading has yielded new dividends. And its consequences enact its concerns, for Catton takes such pains not only for the joy of evocation, but also to carry out a huge thought-experiment into the nature of value.
Almost everyone in Hokitika is dedicated to the acquisition of wealth and the maximisation of profit. It is a community driven by capital, in which relationships are ruled by cost-benefit analysis. One of the few transactions to defeat this fierce logic is the unconditional love that develops between two characters: a young prospector and a "whore". Their love eventually emerges as a gold standard: a touchstone with which to test the value of all things.
And so this phenomenal book, apparently about digging into the Earth's innards in search of wealth, ends up delving into the heart's interior to find true worth. All the while the landscape goes about its business: rain clatters fatly onto the roofs of Hokitika's 100 pubs, storms pummel the sand-bars, the snowmelt of the high peaks swells the rivers, and the rivers crash down towards the sea, carrying gold which shines in their eddy-pools, as one early prospector put it, "like the stars of Orion on a dark, frosty night".