The Luminaries — A Precocious Novel Laced with Astrological Superstructure

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In the digitized world, readers nowadays are leaning towards short forms of fiction, which are mostly downloadable and quickly scanned on portable digital devices. However, 2013 showed that readers haven’t turned away from long forms. Donna Tart’s “GoldFinch”, Richard House’s “The Kills” (Booker Prize long-listed novel) were some of the recently released huge novels, although, the best of the lot is Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize winner ‘The Luminaries’ – a Victorian era murder mystery. Canadian-born Catton’s labyrinthine mystery plot is set during a 19th-century gold rush in New Zealand. At 27, Catton was the youngest recipient of the prestigious award. Catton’s first novel, “The Rehearsal”, published at the age of 22, also won numerous international awards. The vast array of characters and the structure of “Luminaries” revolve around the astrological charts in the period of 1866.

The 800+ page novel starts with a ‘stranger comes to town scenario. It is 1866 and Walter Moody – a young Englishman estranged from his family, comes ashore in Hokitika (New Zealand’s gold town). Moody has had a traumatic voyage aboard the ship ‘GodSpeed.’ Right after landing, he finds the first hotel he happens upon. This makes him to disrupt the secret meeting of twelve men, gathered at the smoking room of Crown hotel. Each of the men comes from different quarters of the city and looks like a party accidentally met. But, the studied isolation of each man makes Moody figure that there is nothing accidental in this arrangement. Thomas Balfour, a shipping agent is the first one to get acquainted with Moody. Gradually, Moody gets introduced with other characters, who are all gathered to discuss the mystery behind the death, disappearance and attempted suicide of three of the town’s inhabitants.

The extensive players present at the Crown hotel are: a Maori hunter (Tauwhare); a Jewish newspaperman (Lowenthal); a “whoremonger” (Dick Mannering); an Irish prison chaplain (Cowell Devlin); a pharmacist, who deals with Opium (Pritchard); Chinese Opium dealer and gold miner (Ah Sook and Ah Quee); the Justice clerk (Aubert Gascoigne); banker (Charlie Frost); a hotelier (Edgar Clinch); builder (Harald Nilssen). The 12 characters retell their stories to reveal new elements in the three mysteries. The first mystery is the death of a hermit named Crosbie Wells, who is found dead by a ambitious politician, Alistair Lauderback. The second is the disappearance of wealthy prospector Emery Staines and the final one is attempted suicide of opium-addicted prostitute Anna Wetherell. All these events are interconnected and one villainous name that comes out in each event is the name of “Francis Carver’ – a ruthless man. Each character’s perspective eventually reveals a juggernaut of a plot that also includes secret identities, blackmail, long-lost brothers, an opium den, a con scheme, and a seance.

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The novel’s structure and its symbolism have merged perfectly with the intricacy of Catton’s shifting use of narrative perspective and her plot. Each chapter contains an astrological chart for the date and location of its setting, which dictates how the events will unfold. The 12 important characters are all associated with a sign of the zodiac, which determines both the character’s destiny and his personal characteristics. The novel comprises of 12 sections and the number of chapters per section also systematically wanes. The first section contains 360 pages (also the number of degrees in a circle) and the second 11, and the no. of chapters dwindles from then on. Eventually, we have sections present the barest sketches of events.

Catton sets the lure of gold to portray the life in New Zealand at the 19th century, where almost all Europeans in the country are born elsewhere. Eight European and two of the Chinese characters have traveled to the country, leaving out their family roots. Many seem to leave their past behind them and a few are single-minded in totally destroying their past. Catton also gives the Maori and Chinese characters equal dramatic status, offering how the corruption of the gold-field, the corruption of local power and politics has damaged their lives. The cozy romances made me feel that Catton could have invested less energy into the clockwork mechanics and more into a characters’ soul.

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In the end, unlike usual murder/mysteries many questions remain unanswered. Also the convoluted transportation of the gold at the centre of the plot is dizzyingly difficult to follow and the identity of killers are only implied, not reassured. However, despite its length and slow pace, “Luminaries” needs to be read more than once to fully grasp the depth and cleverness of the plotting.

“The Luminaries” is an engrossing page-turner of a book, although not fit for fast reading. It is intricately patterned and repeatedly plays with viewers’ expectations.

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