The Luminaries is set in New Zealand in 1866, at the time of the Otago gold rush. Eleanor Catton has not only set her novel in the Victorian period, but has also managed to almost seamlessly mimic the cadence and vocabulary of that time. The book also boasts a carefully structured plot based on the position of the planets on the day the book begins. Furthermore, 12 of the characters represent the astrological signs of the zodiac, and embody their respective characteristics. Of course, all this might have been an empty show of cleverness, if it weren’t for the fact that Catton really does create a beautifully intricate mystery heavily influenced by the conventions of the Victorian sensation novel.
Fans of the genre will be delighted to trace a direct line to Wilkie Collins in the red-haired schemer Lydia Wells, whose appearance, ulterior motives, marriage of questionable legitimacy, and association with laudanum all link her to Collins’ fabulous creation Lydia Gwilt, of his great book Armadale. Nor will it be any surprise to sensation novel readers to find that Catton’s novel investigates a murder, a missing fortune, mistaken identities, opium addiction, conspiracies, revenge, and the most literal instance of star-crossed lovers in recent memory. But to be clear, Catton’s book is not intended to titillate readers’ delicate sensibilities. It is not, in itself, a sensation novel.* It is intended, like the firmament it mimics, to dazzle with its regularity of structure and to inspire wonder at its scope.
It is only possible to give the barest outline of the plot of such a book. Walter Moody, left to make his own way in the world, has traveled from Europe to prospect in the goldfields. On his very first day, he inadvertently intrudes on a secret meeting between twelve men who have gathered to discuss recent events. Two weeks ago, on January 14th, 1866, the town whore was found face-down in the muck on her way home from the hut of the drunkard and hermit Crosbie Wells. The whore, Anna, is a known opium addict and it is unclear whether she attempted to take her own life. Being one of the few women in a town that sprang up to accommodate prospectors means Anna is known by all and cared for by many.
Meanwhile, Emery Staines, recently risen to fame for having struck it rich in the fields, has vanished– though a fortune in raw gold is discovered in the hermit’s hut. From here, the plot weaves in and out of time and perspective. The focus of the plot is not what will happen, but what has happened, and indeed we spend nearly half the book merely establishing the story of the night of January 14th as each man experienced it.
The structure of the book demands that we, along with the characters, are doomed to puzzle out the what of certain events long before we understand the why. Certain other reviews have criticized the book as being thin on emotional development and character building for that reason. Catton has taken an enormous risk by essentially asking her readers to take her on credit for nearly 400 pages. For that span of pages, she offers up skillful plotting and masterful language, but little else. But the last half of the book vindicates Catton’s slow build. The book all but demands re-reading. Though the primary enjoyments of the novel are intellectual, when you tell yourself the story from the end back to the beginning you will see how many of the characters have grown and changed, and will understand the emotional import behind their actions.
Of course, part of Catton’s assertion is that it is impossible to tell any story objectively, and that the truth a man creates can be just as real as anything merely observed. The frontier of New Zealand is a metaphor for this self-creation: “You know what the trouble is?” asks one character, early on, “Down here, any man can make himself over. Make himself new… What’s in a name? Pick it up as you pick up a nugget.” After all is revealed, Walter himself will muse on the nature of knowledge and truth, and find that he cannot quite resolve his musings: “I am trying to decide between the whole truth, and nothing but the truth… I am afraid my history is such that I can’t manage both at once.”
“Who said anything about the truth?” he is told. “You’re a free man in this country, Walter Moody. You tell me any old rubbish you like, and if you string it out until we reach the junction at Kumara, then I shall count it as a very fine tale.”
All right then.
*And in a separate essay, I could very easily write many words exploring the ways in which the novel courts disappointment in the very sort of well-read, critical reader most likely to appreciate the merits of a Victorian sensation novel. It is difficult not to notice how the two main female characters are described almost exclusively in relation to men, and how neither is given her own extended point of view sequence as the 12 male characters and Walter Moody are. The obvious influence of Collins’ work on the overall work invites comparison to that author’s frequent use of the female perspective and his treatment of relationships between women. On a separate note, a discussion on colonialism flits about the edges of the plot, but never quite coalesces into its own through-narrative. Do these discussions belong in this book? I don’t know. But it’s difficult to ignore their absence.