Winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is a wonder. It succeeds as both a conceptual work, based on astrological signs and charts, and a thrilling set of mysteries, all of which are interrelated.
Set in the mid-1860s gold rush in New Zealand, the story commences with Scot Walter Moody arriving into Hokitika on the western coast, seeking to make his fortune in the nearby goldfields. On the night of his arrival he stumbles into a gathering of twelve men in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel. The men are from various backgrounds and classes, and Moody slowly comes to see they are all there for some kind of council.
They have come to discuss a series of unsolved crimes that, to an outsider, they might seem involved with. A successful young digger has disappeared. A whore has attempted to take her own life. And a hapless hermit who is fond of drink has been found dead in his cottage, surrounded by a fortune. Moody himself has a tale to tell, too, for he has witnessed something—an apparition of some kind?—on his stormy voyage into Hokitika that has shaken him to the core. He recalls the scene thus:
What had he been thinking of? Only the cravat, the silver hand, that name, gasped out of the darkness. The scene was like a small world, Moody thought, possessed of its own dimensions. Any amount of ordinary time could pass, when his mind was straying there. There was this large world of rolling time and shifting spaces, and that small, stilled world of horror and unease; they fit inside each other, a sphere within a sphere.
Each of the twelve assembled men has their own astrological sign. The shipping agent Thomas Balfour, for instance, is Sagittarius. The Maori greenstone hunter Te Rau Tauwhare is Aries. Each of their personalities is set down in accordance to their sign, and their actions are likewise governed by the position of the planets and other astrological influences on the days of the key events. (Other characters are linked to planets, with related influences; Moody’s influence is reason. The dead man, Crosbie Wells, is Terra Firma.)
The story is divided into twelve Parts, each of which is preceded by a chart to show the position of the planetary influences in the various astrological signs. For instance, in Part One, set on 27 January 1866, we have Mercury, Mars and Jupiter in Sagittarius (Balfour’s sign). And it is Balfour who first engages with Moody and begins to tell him some of the story.
Each Part has a set of chapters, and each chapter has a quaint introduction, which start with the words ‘In which’. The first chapter is entitled ‘Mercury in Sagittarius’ and is described thus: ‘In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika; a secret council is disturbed; Walter Moody conceals his most recent memory; and Thomas Balfour begins to tell a story.’
The first Part is 360 pages long, a page for each degree of a circle, ‘a sphere within a sphere’. Subsequent Parts gradually reduce in length, like the waning of a moon, until the chapters are no more than a page long. Meanwhile, the introductions to each chapter become, in the latter Parts at least, longer, waxing as we near the conclusion.
The danger with high-concept novels, as Catton herself acknowledges, is that they risk becoming slaves to the concept and fall down on the level of pure story. The more elaborate the scaffolding, the higher the risk. But story does not suffer in The Luminaries. You could ignore all of the astrological elements and enjoy the story as it stands and as it is written, with some of the well-established Victorian tropes, such as opium dens, a fallen woman/whore, and séances and the supernatural. The prose is assured, and written in classic Victorian style too, from flamboyant character names and descriptions right down to the missing letters in the word ‘d—ned’.
It’s a real page turner, with judicious revelations of relationships and past actions that have contributed to the three events the council has come to discuss. There are lies, deceits, tricks, intrigues, conspiracies, conmen, mix-ups, espionage, rumours, revenge, secrets, promises made and broken, murder, adultery, blackmail, and strange coincidences. And there is, buried in the many revolving tales, the love story of two soul mates. Best of all, it’s fun to read.
Catton manages the panoply of characters with their interwoven pasts with aplomb. They are not stereotypes, but rather have the depth, complexity and contradictions of us all. They have almost Dickensian names: there’s Reverend Devlin, a mercantile ship owner named Carver. And Catton delves deeply into each of them, their physical descriptions, mannerisms, foibles and outlook.
There are interesting themes at play: greed and exploitation; many kinds of love (familial, of a companion, of a lover); honour. There is also the question of whether we have free will or act in accordance to some higher, preordained influence. Perhaps it is both, for the omniscient narrator, in explaining a shift from Aquarius to Pisces, observes ‘were of our own making, and we shall be our own end.’
Exploring the theme of greed, there is a lovely exchange between Te Rau Tauwhare and one of the gold diggers who believes gold and the Maori’s greenstone could be interchangeable: why do we seek gold and not greenstone, one mineral and not the other? No, replies Tauwhare, they are not the same. And we know this because Catton has established the special meaning of greenstone to the Maori people. (Catton also shows Tauwhare’s pain and bitterness when he thinks of the £300 his people were paid for all their land, and the theft it equates to given all the gold in its soil and rivers.)
There’s fun to be hand along the way. Take Mannering’s comment after Balfour’s tale of why the twelve men are gathered for their council comes to a conclusion 350 pages into the novel: ‘A little more than [Moody] bargained for, perhaps.’ How droll!
There are also some lovely touches that reinforce the structural theme. Balfour asks Tauwhare for the meaning of the word Hokitika in Maori. Tauwhare struggles to put it into words, but “at last [he] lifted his finger and described a circle in the air. … ‘Understand it like this,’ he said, regretting that he had to speak the words in English, and approximate the noun. ‘Around. And then back again, beginning.’” It is a beautiful underlining of the structure of the novel itself, which wanes like a moon until it is new again, reaching the start of the story at its end. Beautiful. And one of the main gold claims in the story is called the ‘Aurora’, which is a word for dawn.
The Luminaries is the sort of novel perhaps only David Mitchell would have attempted, and maybe not even him. There will be theses and PhDs written on it. At 832 pages it is the longest to win the Booker, but don’t be put off by the length. At the end, although I was completely satisfied, I hoping there might be more. All I can do now is sit back and admire the waxing of a major literary talent.
And as a fan of great book and cover design work, I dip me lid to the cover design, by Jenny Grigg, which is terrific. And kudos to Granta for publishing such an ambitious work.
Read it, and let me know what you think.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased, rather appropriately in this instance, from Megalong Books in Leura!)