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‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton

Eleanor Catton - The LuminariesThe Luminaries, Eleanor Catton's second novel, has won the Booker Prize, 2013.
Publisher: Granta, 2013
ISBN: 978 1 84708 431 6

Eleanor Catton’s debut novel, The Rehearsal (2008), published when she was only 22, was poised, stylish and distinctive. Intriguingly for a novel by a New Zealand author it lacked almost entirely any local referent. Unlike the free-floating fictional world of that novel, The Luminaries is firmly located in the densely realised world of the gold-rush town of Hokitika in the 1860s. At first it is hard to imagine two more entirely different novels. Both, however, exploit to full advantage the possibilities offered by small enclosed communities, no matter how different those communities may be. And there are other more formal and conceptual parallels. The Rehearsal is about performance, and the idea for The Luminaries began initially from drama research when Catton was an undergraduate (she was examining nineteenth-century New Zealand newspapers for references to travelling players). A particular strength of both novels is her ability to practice what Henry James called ‘the divine principle of the scenario’. Catton has a singular ability to construct a novel around elaborately designed and dramatised scenes, and a special gift for dialogue.

The Luminaries begins as a ‘stranger comes to town’ narrative. Walter Moody, a young Englishman estranged from his family, comes ashore in Hokitika one stormy night and stumbles into a private meeting of twelve local men gathered to discuss the separate death, disappearance and attempted suicide of three of the town’s inhabitants on the same night. Moody is invited to join the conclave and learns of the history surrounding these unexplained events. From there, as they say, the plot thickens and no summary can come close to describing the cleverly staged unfolding of the past that ensues, nor to the bearing of that past on the events of the next few months as taken up in the middle sections of the novel.

The lure and corruption of gold is a very old theme. From The Pardoner’s Tale to Treasure of the Sierra Madre it brings violence and death, and The Luminaries is true to this narrative. It is also a novel of frontier life in New Zealand at a time when almost all Europeans in the country had been born elsewhere. One of the twelve men assembled at the start of the novel, a young bank clerk Charlie Frost, feels like an alien because he is New Zealand-born. All but one of the others - eight Europeans and two Chinese – is without family roots. They have left their past behind them although in several cases it reappears and helps destroy them. The last of the twelve, a Maori greenstone hunter, is also an unexplained solitary. Catton gives her Chinese and Maori characters equal dramatic status though of course in the narrative they suffer the insults and denigration characteristic of this time. Hokitika itself is a comfortless place, offering nothing between the corruption of the gold-field and the corruption of local power and politics. But the characterisation is more subtle than this might suggest. People’s better selves are distorted by the pull of gold and the ease with which crime can flourish in such a town, but acts of goodness occur. And out of the muck of this loveless place a love story of sorts emerges.

Contemporary fiction set in the nineteenth century and using the conventions of the Victorian novel to create parallels and contrasts between then and now has become a sub-genre of its own. A.S. Byatt’s Possession is a celebrated example. The Luminaries, with its very precise temporal setting of 1865-1866, attempts no such juxtaposition. In this it is more like Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, but even Carey’s novel implies a retrospective view of the time in which it is set. Catton’s novel is totally embedded in the period of its setting yet wholly imagined and therefore unlike, say, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies which fictionalise actual historical characters and events.

Eleanor Catton

Eleanor Catton

Certainly The Luminaries is unlike any other New Zealand novel. In a recent interview Catton spoke of the freedom she felt in coming from a country with so few constricting literary traditions. There have been no major New Zealand novels set in the mid-nineteenth century and so there was no ‘burden of influence’ when she came to write one. The Luminaries is on very familiar terms with the Victorian novel, and I think it likely that Catton has read Carey and, perhaps, David Mitchell (the opening and closing sections of Cloud Atlas or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), but the novel, like its author, is an original.

The plotting is elaborate but impeccably controlled and assisted by a great feel for when to break a scene. Catton has acknowledged the influence of the box-set TV drama and this is clearly demonstrated in the deftness of her cutting. Her narrative technique is perfectly designed to convey the complexity of the plotting and to sustain tension. The detailing of the novel – of the town itself, its weather (incessant rain), food, dress, gold-prospecting, shipping, banking – is central to the dense and richly created scenes around which it is constructed. The most obvious benefit of this is the unstrained verisimilitude it creates. The detail never shouts for attention but does its work quietly; the research that must have gone into this novel is worn very lightly indeed. A further strength of Catton’s detailing is her use of gestures and mannerisms. Although there are passages in which the third person narrator describes the inner life of the characters in the manner of George Eliot, Catton also employs Dickens’ manner of characterisation whereby the details of their external person are used expressively and dramatically.

Here is a small example, taken almost at random. Mannering, a local magnate of self-satisfied disposition (the echo of Dad’s Army is surely intended) is telling a story illustrating his own ingenuity: ‘He relaxed into his narrative, thumping the brim of his stovepipe hat against his leg.’ The kind of hat is carefully specified, telling us something of Mannering’s social position and, in the visual image it conjures, his pomposity. Thumping the hat against his leg as an accompaniment to his narrative dramatises the energy and vigour with which Mannering pursues his aims. And at the end of his story Mannering puts his hat back on his head, ‘running his finger and thumb around the brim and back again’ as he declares that he has a score to settle and that ‘no man makes a fool of Dick Mannering’. Replacing the hat is an act of intent; rubbing it suggests the self-regard that defines his character. Novelists lost an important prop when hats went out fashion, and Catton is consistently alert to the dramatic potential, small as well as large, that the stuff of nineteenth-century life offers. Such close attention to detail in a novel of this length, complexity and with a large cast of characters, where there is so much else for the author to manage, is remarkable.

For most of its length The Luminaries is an unqualified success. Its mystery plot is quite as compelling as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone or The Woman in White. As a historical novel about the gold-rush it makes the West Coast sections of Rose Tremain’s novel, The Colour, seem sadly under-realised. The characterisation is acute, the drama is sustained, the treatment of its themes of greed, power and love is subtle and compassionate, and the writing is elegant and exact throughout.

There is a problem, however, in the way in which the astrological superstructure eventually takes over the novel. This structuring device has worked almost invisibly for most of its length, useful clearly as an organisational principle for the author but hardly impinging on the reader. Indeed, were it not for a Note to the Reader that forms an epigraph to the novel, the charts that preface each of its twelve parts, and its chapter headings, the shaping role played by stellar and planetary positions would hardly be noticeable. That is, up until the end of part four, little more than a hundred pages before the end. The remaining eight parts become shorter and shorter, in harmony with the astrological cycle, so much so that the last four parts are barely a page long, though accompanied by increasingly lengthy chapter introductions (‘In which Mannering, driving Anna Wetherell to Kaniere...’) of a kind that have featured, though much less conspicuously, throughout. The material dealt with in these parts is entirely retrospective, clarifying matters that remain uncertain, amplifying others. The overall effect is unfortunate. The tension fades, the strength of the writing is diluted, and for the first time in more than 700 pages the invention and energy of the novel starts to drain away. It is as if the scaffolding that has helped Catton in shaping her novel has been left in place after the work has been completed.

Catton has defended her use of astrology in The Luminaries – ‘the plot was patterned on the movement of the heavens’ – in terms of the legitimacy of using philosophy in fiction. Leaving aside the question as to whether astrology is philosophy, who would argue with this? But although a fascination with astrology and archetypes has clearly helped the author to shape and control the writing of this very long and complex novel, it barely encroaches on the reader’s attention. In the same interview referred to earlier, Catton has described how Mannering, for example, represents Leo: ‘I thought, OK, well Leo’s the fifth house of the zodiac, it’s associated with games and competitions, and it’s called the house of pleasure, so I’ll make him a whoremonger.’ I was more struck by Mannering’s hat than by his place in the zodiac. If philosophy is to have a determining influence on the work it must be incorporated into the novel’s life and texture. This only occurs late in The Luminaries and then to damaging effect.

That said, Catton’s second novel more than confirms the sense of a very special talent indicated by her first novel. The Luminaries is certainly a landmark in New Zealand fiction and, as its short-listing for the Booker prize shows, establishes Eleanor Catton as a leading international author with an outstanding future.

Rod Edmond