'How opaque, the minds of absent men and women! And how elusive, motivation!" So exclaims the narrator of Eleanor Catton's irresistible second novel. Four years ago her debut, The Rehearsal, about a sex scandal at a New Zealand high school, won her a cache of nominations and prizes, but hardly foretold the startling gear shift that has given us this historical suspense novel, which has made her the favourite for this year's Man Booker prize, aged just 28.
A Victorian sensation novel transplanted to New Zealand, the setting (which for many readers will be familiar from Rose Tremain's The Colour) is the South Island's west coast in the 1860s: the gold rush, the hastily thrown up town of Hokitika. On a stormy night, Edinburgh-born Walter Moody walks off the boat into the first hotel he stumbles across, deeply shaken by an uncanny incident during his voyage; he finds himself in a room of 12 men who have a joint secret involving an opium den, a drugged whore, the ghostly ship, a dead drunk, a missing fortune and a young man's disappearance.
The characters include a reverend, a "whoremonger", a politician, a prospector, an opium trafficker, a fortune-teller, and a jailer. Everyone is from somewhere else (almost – the novel has one Maori character); European prospectors and Chinese labourers remaking themselves in a new world at "the southernmost edge of the civilised earth". Each knows at least one thing not at first disclosed to the others. Moody becomes privy to the mystery by "a most disjointed and multifarious report", which the narrator smooths out for the reader's benefit.
Catton matches her telling to her 19th-Century setting, indulging us with straightforward character appraisals, moral estimations of each character along with old-fashioned rundowns of their physical attributes, a gripping plot that is cleverly unravelled to its satisfying conclusion, a narrative that from the first page asserts that it is firmly in control of where it is taking us. Like the 19th-Century novels it emulates, The Luminaries plays on Fortune's double meaning – men chasing riches, and the grand intertwining of destinies.
This world turned on its head is an eerie place. On Moody's arrival he looks for constellations by which to guide himself: "The skies were inverted, the patterns unfamiliar, the Pole Star beneath his feet, quite swallowed . . . He found Orion – upended, his quiver beneath him, his sword hanging upward from his belt; Canis Major – hanging like a dead dog from a butcher's hook."
The uneasiness of this initial scene is masterfully held, using very traditional tactics. The narrative voice refers to itself as "we", as in "we think it sufficient to say, at this juncture, that there were eight passengers on board the Godspeed when she pulled out of the harbour at Dunedin, and by the time the barque landed on the coast, there were nine".
At 832 pages, it might seem like self-indulgence, especially in a market awash with historical novels, sometimes looser and baggier than the original novels that inspired them. But this is a paean to plot that needs space for its retellings. Catton has also absorbed the feel of detective fiction, where almost every sentence is feeding the plot (quite a feat at 832 pages). At first it seems the 12 men are all being framed; the story comes to us second, sometimes third-hand. Most of the men are entangled, in some way, with Anna, the whore, who remains opaque until the end.
Catton is completely in control of all the bustling, brawling plot lines of "this very circular affair", as if they really were determined by the astrological patterns she playfully invokes. Just as one character bursts out laughing in appreciation when he realises a villain has signed a deed with an ambiguous signature, the reader feels similar flashes of pleasure in the author's forethought.
Is this then purely an achievement of plotting? The narrative structure intrigues, moving Rashomon-like between viewpoints and the bounds of each character's separate sphere of knowledge, without ever losing the reader, various characters playing detective then stepping aside.
The novel has many attributes – excellent dialogue, humour, great observation, as when two acquaintances at a party share the same expression: "The distant, slightly disappointed aspect of one who is comparing the scene around him, unfavourably, to other scenes, both real and imagined, that have happened, and are happening elsewhere."
It uses the historical setting as a backdrop and has a gregarious cast of characters (the brilliantly named Emery Staines, the demonic con woman Lydia Wells). But the things that most impress are the cunning withholding of information, the elegant foreshadowing, the skilful looping back on the narrative.
Just as the market seems saturated with Victoriana, along comes Catton and proves herself as entertaining a mistress of plot and pacing as Sarah Waters.
Her novel makes ample use of those accoutrements of an old-fashioned plot, which partly explains what motivates so many of our brightest writers today to set their fiction in the past: the shiftiness of signatures and handwriting, eavesdropping and assignations, conspiracies and secrets, people from one's past who turn up and expose you, purloined letters and delayed communications, the absence of permanent availability, that seem defunct in a modern setting.
There is even a séance, admittedly somewhat hackneyed fare for a historical novel, but a good metaphor for how the plot reveals itself: a slow, tense formation of a corporeal whole from ethereal hints and knockings.
In the final chapters the story's loose ends are tied up, and each of the final clues at long last narrated, the truth arrived at. But the little précis, which stand at the top of each chapter throughout in a slightly cutesy emulation of a Dickens or Eliot, start to compress the action so much they usurp its telling, so that all that are left in each of these final chapters are suggestive snatches, sometimes barely a paragraph.
The novel seems suddenly to acknowledge its post-modern vantage point. "One should never take another man's truth for one's own," cautions Moody. That eternally partial knowledge of one another is the book's most compelling mystery.