Leave it to the astrologers to forecast unusual cosmological events for the coming months. What’s certain is that under the sign of Libra, the reading public will be gifted that rarest literary treasure, a book of such dazzling breadth and scope that it defies any label short of masterpiece.
Eleanor Catton’s skill was evident in her deft debut, The Rehearsal. The Rehearsal opened a disturbing window onto manipulative adults and adolescents snaking around each other in a music school. In addition to an uncomfortable set of relationships, the disturbance was fueled by lack of names, major characters, and place.
Now comes Catton’s The Luminaries, firmly rooted in both the history of Catton’s native New Zealand and in the literature of the Victorian era. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Catton lives in Auckland. If The Rehearsal was an edgy and inventive debut, The Luminaries is a virtuoso performance. Published at the tender age of twenty-eight, Catton’s second novel tips its hat to Moby Dick’s singular language and Leviathan obsession; Charles Dickens’s sprawling, baggy investigations of ordinary, flawed humanity; George Eliott’s timeless moral inquiries; and the twentieth century romances of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. The Luminaries is resplendent: a twenty first century Victorian novel that couldn’t be more original.
The novel drops us into the Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island, where a nineteenth century gold rush succeeded California’s by about twenty years. In 1866, twelve men congregate in the smoking room of Hokitika’s Crown Hotel, giving “the impression of a party accidentally met.” The party includes a collection of Chinese, Maori, Jewish, French, and local characters, from a banker to a chaplain to an opium dealer to a whoremonger. “Everyone’s from somewhere else,” the shipping agent comments. It transpires that they all share a common interest in Anna Wetherell, “the whore,” and in recapturing a fortune in gold discovered and then lost in the cabin of a recently deceased (murdered?) man.
Enter the thirteenth man, Walter Moody, just off the boat from England. In a literary sleight of hand, Moody plays audience for the story’s setup (more on that to come) and subsequently participates in the unfolding plot.
The organizing principle for The Luminaries is the Zodiac. “Luminaries” is astrology speak for the brightest and most important objects in the sky: the sun and the moon. Put simplistically, the greater and lesser light of the sun and moon represent the twin poles of man and woman and their array of accompanying characteristics. Each of the many characters is assigned an astrological identity that cycles through the novel. The major sections of the book begin with an illustrated chart of the Zodiac, including symbols and positioning. In an interpretive hint in the prologue, we are told that the novel takes place during a time of precession, when “the motion of the vernal equinox has come to shift.” The author dares us to conjecture that time in this novel is “Piscean in its quality…an age of mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things.” It would be reasonable to focus a review of The Luminaries exclusively on these five Piscean themes; they would surely provide enough material for a Ph.D. dissertation.
In common with any respectable Victorian, Catton doesn’t hesitate to interrupt herself with explication and expansive moral judgments. Of Walter Moody she writes, “like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best.” Or, the banker, who “spoke with the controlled alarm of a bureaucrat who is requested to explain some mundane feature of the bureaucracy of which he is a functioning part: controlled, because an official is always comforted by proof of his own expertise, and alarmed, because the necessity for explanation seemed, in some obscure way, to undermine the system which had afforded him that expertise in the first place.”
Catton waxes lyrical in her physical descriptions. Here’s Anna Wetherell, the whore: “Her complexion was translucent, even blue, and tended to a deep purple beneath her eyes — as if she had been painted in watercolor, on a paper that was not stiff enough to hold the moisture, so the colors ran…Her nose was narrow, even geometric: a sculptor might render it in four strokes, with one slice on either side, one down the bridge, and one tuck beneath.”
But the genius of The Luminaries resides in its structure. The novel generates an unusual and unique rhythm. The setup occurs over a sprawling three-hundred-sixty pages. Technically it’s closer to three-hundred-forty; the remaining twenty consolidate and summarize the previous book-length introduction. By this point, the reader is luxuriating in a state of agreeable confusion, curious and eager to read on. The twenty pages of summary are useful, but they could never substitute for such a grand exposition.
Chapter titles reference the Zodiac and are followed by short, italicized summations. For example, “In which the chemist goes in search of opium; we meet Anna Wetherell at last; Pritchard becomes inpatient; and two shots are fired.” Homage, perhaps, to Oliver Twist and its ilk. As secrets are revealed and contradictions unmasked, the book picks up speed with shorter chapters, more truncated sections, and longer and longer “in which” introductions that finally substitute for text and plot. Part One may be the length of most novels, but Part Twelve takes a mere two pages. No doubt astrological numerology would offer further insight into how those twelve parts relate to the twelve characters seated in the Crown Hotel’s smoking room at the outset, who in turn reflect the twelve signs of the Zodiac.
The novel’s pace accelerates with snowballing revelations of hypocrisy, exploitation, mendacity, revenge, and cruelty; all sprinkled with a healthy dose of coincidence. Even the cleverest literary sleuth may fail to solve the whole puzzle until the end. This is the stuff of life in all its unpredictability: mistaken assumptions; arrogant presumption; substance over surface; truth and consequences; and, ultimately, good versus evil.
Steeped in history, The Luminaries feels completely fresh. Contemporary American writers increasingly decline the sweeping range and flow of the past tense. The resulting language compacts into ever-shrinking pages, serving up clipped sentences written in present tense. By contrast, The Luminaries takes its leisurely time roaming the past tense, developing an intricate and complex plot.
Catton’s nineteenth century style feels brand new.
From whence has Catton sprung? Unfortunately, precious few New Zealand writers reach American shores. Perhaps Katherine Mansfield is best known to U.S. readers, along with Janet Frame, whose eerie, haunting novels unfurl a psychologically troubled personal history. Catton’s contemporary, Fiona Farrell, recently set a novel in Victorian times: Mr. Allbones’ Ferrets: An Historical Pastoral Satirical Scientifical Romance, with Mustelids. In Mr. Allbones, Farrell explores the burgeoning scientific understanding of evolution in the time of Charles Darwin, while Kiwi writer Emily Perkins uses nature differently in The Forrests — to examine a contemporary family in dissolution.
But Catton’s talent is too capacious to be confined to place. Deeply entrenched in New Zealand’s South Island, The Luminaries makes clear that this author commands the world at her fingertips. Her literary ancestry derives less from her homeland and more from the British and American giants of the nineteenth century. Catton deserves their company. Nodding to Melville, she’s nailed the tormented sea captain and the revenge obsessed “Chinaman.” With so many characters taking on false identities and trying to out-cheat each other in New Zealand’s gold rush, Catton, too, has mined the seamy underside of greed and poverty so beloved by Dickens. Like George Eliot, Catton looks behind the stereotype of the whore and the opium dealer and forces us to question where the real morality lies. By the novel’s end, every character’s initial presentation has been destabilized. Reader, Catton instructs, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Catton deploys daunting technique, yes. She’s spun a solar system into orbit — the planets, the stars, and the sun and the moon. But more importantly, she’s persuaded readers to invest emotionally in each foibled, flawed, lying character right through to page eight-hundred-thirty. The love story is simply an added pleasure.
All that, and Eleanor Catton is still on the nearside of thirty. Small wonder that The Luminaries has been nominated for the Booker Prize. No matter the outcome, the literary firmament has birthed a new star.