Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is an engaging, avant-garde novel, not to be read with the traditional expectations of the form, for it will entertain, intrigue, provoke, infuriate and keep you thinking about why it works, when certain aspects we know and love about stories, suggest that it shouldn’t. The allure of the new.
The Luminaries is a 19th century narrative, set in the gold –digging community of Hokitika ‘place of return‘, on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.
In 1866, when the story takes place, it was a thriving community, expanding in the golden glint of its anticipated resource and one of the most populous towns in New Zealand, a far cry from it’s just over 3,000 inhabitants today. While it remains possible for visitors to try their luck at gold panning today, they are more likely to be cycling the West Coast wilderness trail or to taking a helicopter over the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers.
The story focuses on a group of people living in Hokitika, attracted by the prospects of finding gold or its associated business opportunities. It opens with the newest arrival, a distressed Thomas Moody, who has just disembarked from the barque Godspeed and after checking into the Crown Hotel, happens upon a gathering of 12 men in a bar of the hotel that had been closed for the evening. Already in the hotel, he had not been prevented from entering the room and thus becomes witness to a discussion of events that had occurred two weeks prior, the death of the hermit Crosbie Wells, the disappearance of the gold prospector Emery Staines, the arrest of a whore Anna Wetherell and the discovery of a cache of retorted gold bars.
As any 12 prominent men summoned to a room for a discussion might attempt to garner attention, so too does Catton give over chapters which allow those men to stand in their own limelight and this gathering will invoke a long and divergent narrative of stories, encounters and sharing of perspectives by each of the men present.
Their stories span the first half of the book, introducing a structural device Catton uses to divide the book into 12 parts, each successive part half the length of that before it, where the sequence of events moves about so that we reach the end only to discover we are at the beginning. We realise this is not a plot heading towards its climax, nor a beginning working towards its end, it is a series of revelations that unmask illusions of our own imagination as well as that of the characters portrayed and by the time we reach those last pages, the actual dramatic events that unfold will occupy fewer lines on the pages of this book than the mass of 400 plus ages that has allowed this community of men to discuss, analyse, reveal, conceal and pontificate on what might have occurred.
As fast as one mystery unravels, there arises another as Catton introduces one twist after another and slowly reveals the encounters and connections between characters, including those not present at the meeting.
The use of an omniscient narrator means that no one character plays a lead role, just as the lack of a detective precludes it from unravelling like a conventional mystery. Instead, it reads almost as a series of dramatic episodes, where the various interactions and focus on certain characters help the viewer/reader understand their ambitions and motivations, though like a jigsaw, the whole picture will not become clear until all the missing pieces are joined together.
I was reminded at times of reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, a novel that is without comparison when it comes to penetrating character analysis, itself a complex web of relationships and associations. Catton’s insights into her characters perhaps owe more to her reading of Jung than Dostoevsky, as she penetrates the psychological depths of each character using lyrical prose. While these insights make pleasant reading, it is the actual interactions and actions of the characters that more ably create a lasting impression. As a consequence, we perceive the entire cast at a slight distance and may yearn for something more from some of them.
Much has been written elsewhere about the astrological structure and intention behind Catton’s writing, and it would be easy to turn this into as essay and begin to analyse twin hemispheres, yin and yang, predestined forces and those luminaries that represent our innermost and outermost selves whom she literalises in characters, however I have chosen to write more on the experience of reading the book, without focusing on the forces at play in their interactions. It is possible to listen to Eleanor Catton speak more on this at the Southbank reading here and in numerous articles in The Guardian and elsewhere.
It is an entertaining read, that despite its length I never wanted to put down and actually found myself wondering about other members of the community that don’t appear in the book, like the families of these characters and other inhabitants of this gold loving town. Perhaps we might get to meet them in a future TV adaptation, since I hear the rights have already been bought by a British production company.