I finished reading The Luminaries on the evening of a perigee full moon. The timing seemed fortuitous as the structure of Catton’s novel is based on the phases of the moon, and how those phases illuminate the characters and the narrative. Walter Moody has arrived in Hokitika in January 1866 and checks into a hotel where 12 men have gathered. Unbeknown to Walter the men have gathered to discuss recent sensational events in the town and Walter’s presence is unwelcome. The hotel/drawing room setting has a sniff of the Dickensian about it, but the novel leans more to the Sensation novel of the Victorian period. The Victorians found delight in their nerves being jangled by incidents of murder, poisoning, identity fraud, insanity, abduction, and concerns about heredity. My nerves were suitably jangled by similiar events in Catton’s novel.
I have not read Catton’s enormously successful first novel The Rehearsal which garnered many international plaudits. However, Catton notes in an interview with The Lumiére Reader that her second novel follows the thematic concerns of her first novel in investigating whether there can “be a version of an event that is more true than another version, with the answer probably put forward being no.” In the novel we hear different versions of events, not simply the same scenes reiterated by different characters, instead the action is forwarded by perspectives and action viewed by different characters. Slowly, like the phases of the moon, parts of the narrative are told to reveal the whole. The idea of different characters taking up the narrative is not a new idea for sensational literature. Catton notes that Wilkie Collins uses the device for The Woman in White. Catton’s use however, is more successful. Having read The Woman in White as an undergraduate I recall that Collins’s narrative loses its drive three-quarters of the way through and ends up being monopolised by one character. Catton’s characters’ perspectives slot seamlessly into each other, without one overshadowing the other, and the narrative maintains momentum.
The Luminaries, according to Catton, is also to do with self-knowledge. She asks, “Does perfect self-knowledge mean that you can act as unlike as that person as you know, or does it just mean you’re a slave to what you know about yourself.” Each of the 12 men in the hotel lounge are aligned with a sign of the zodiac. Each sign has different traits and characteristics, and I think the narrative attempts to show whether the astrological sign and its related characteristics confine the characters to those specific traits. Whether characters’ traits align with the zodiac is up for the reader’s interpretation, or inclination, for astrology. From a writer’s perspective I can see the attraction of building characters out of the characteristics of the zodiac and it would be all too easy for them to turn into types, but Catton avoids this. The novel could be read with little or no knowledge of astrology and it is still an intriguing narrative. However, the novel does feel like one you could study for some time to reveal its nuances.
One thing that can change an individual’s conception of themselves is a change of environment. The majority of characters have come from elsewhere having followed the gold rushes in the new world. To get to Hokitika they have crossed ‘the bar’ which acts like a liminial space, which if successfully crossed offers potential riches but also the threat of demise. While a character may have aligned themselves with certain traits in the ‘old country’ (whichever country that may be), a new country offers new challenges to the individual and their conception of themselves. For some, success in Hokitika means leaving it, for others they become resigned to stay. The township itself is described mostly by its waterways and hotels. At times however, it seems like the only inhabitants of the town are those mentioned in the narrative. While having more of the general community would have added a bit more hussle and bussle, the lack of other people gives the narrative a sense of sparseness like the empty streets of a Western.
The size of the narrative is somewhat overwhelming. I could spend a paragraph writing quips about its length. With a book of such a large size I think the ending has to pay off, and I‘m not sure if the short chapters at the conclusion do. They may be astrologically accurate but they are short and feel rushed which disrupts the pleasure in finishing a long narrative. However, it is impressive how Catton has kept all the narrative strands together in such a mammoth word count. The narrative is pacy, the characters are well drawn, in a Dickensian sense. There is humour, and I did not feel tricked by an obvious plot omission in the mystery that can occur in some novels in order to continue the narrative. It may be better for you wrists to buy this book as an e-book, however if you want to buy and treasure the book as an object I would suggest you bypass the paperback (it won’t last the distance) and go straight for the hardback.