Home > History, Literature, Reviews > Astrological Structure and Narrative Mystery in Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries”

Astrological Structure and Narrative Mystery in Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries”

The Man Booker Prize is no small honour, and Eleanor Catton’s narratively sprawling, absorbing novel The Luminaries is no small honouree. The 28-year-old Canada-born, New Zealand-reared writer’s 800+ page astrologically-structured mystery is set in the mid-1800s during her adopted country’s West Coast gold rush and freely mixes a directness of prose with narrative and structural complexity. A compelling read for most of its length, The Luminaries loses some must-finish appeal in its closing segments, a miscalculation attributable mostly to a privileging of that aforementioned meticulously worked-out structure over narrative momentum and character empathy and engagement.

The Luminaries is a ripping-enough yarn about intrigue, betrayal, conflict, and redemption in and around the gold-rush boomtown of Hokitika on New Zealand’s West Coast. Beginning in 1866 and moving forward before flashing back (the placement of that flashing back is a big issue, but we’ll get to that in a moment), The Luminaries begins with Walter Moody, a Scottish barrister and prospecting hopeful, who arrives in town in the midst of a deluge characteristic of the region. He’s fleeing a deep family shame and a nearer, more mysterious vision that he’s seen on board the ship that landed him in Hokitika, and plans to stake a claim on the fortune-making goldfields in the area.

Seeking solitude and comfort in the lounge of his hotel, Moody happens upon a conspiratorial congregation of twelve seemingly mismatched local men. A genial representative of the enigmatic dozen gentlemen, a shipping agent named Balfour, attempts to suss out Moody’s nature and background, and the gathering eventually elects to inculcate the newcomer into their shared secret. The meeting concerns a labyrinthine riddle involving a deceased hermit, a vanished young man, an ambitious politician, an opium-addicted prostitute, a rough-edged sea captain, a fashionable widow, stolen gold, an unsigned bequest of wealth, the local prison, and a crate full of dresses, a tangled situation implicating every man there gathered in some way.

This sounds like an intriguing set-up for a cracker of a detective story with the rational, analytical Moody as the sleuth figure. Though there would be nothing wrong with that, it’s to Catton’s credit that she proceeds unpredictably. The story does eventually reach a sort of climax in a courtroom drama section with Moody as the brilliant legal unraveller of the tangled web woven by the sea captain Carver and his comely accomplice Lydia Wells. But what leads to those chapters is a tapestry of colliding motivations and ambitions, muddled associations and trespasses into each other’s orbits pushing her varied cast of characters towards conclusions that are introductions, endings that constitute beginnings.

Catton is a fine prose stylist, fond of digressions into the psychological nuances of her characters’ self-conceptions, relations to others, and closely-held illusions and prejudices. Her narrative is also riveting, at least up until her structural choices take over from natural storytelling rhythms and reader interest inevitably wanes.

Despite The Luminaries‘ ostensible setting in a historically firm time and place, it invokes Victorian spiritualism very prominently and involves seemingly supernatural occurences (ghostly apparitions, spirit possessions, apparent mental and physical linkages across time and space) and mysteries that are never fully explained. Such supernatural elements proceed from the astrological foundations and architectural skeleton of the novel. The dozen men meeting in the hotel lounge when Moody arrives are based on the twelve signs of the zodiac: an imperious goldfields magnate and pimp is Leo, a confident and physically imposing Maori guide is Aries, and so forth. Another set of characters, including Moody, Carver, and Lydia Wells, represent the planets of the solar system. The conjunction of the characters of corresponding astrological signs and heavenly bodies and the sort of interactions they have are based by Catton on the personality traits and psychological assumptions of the astrological profiles, as well as upon the passing phases of the moon. Catton’s chapters and “parts” begin much longer and grow much shorter as the book moves along, much as the lunar cycle begins at full wax before waning to a glowing sliver in the nocturnal sky.

It’s surely this intricate, tremendously clever structure that so attracted the Booker jury, lending a depth and resonant allure to the page-turning period intrigue of Catton’s central mystery. But Catton chooses to mostly resolve the core mystery of the “current” strand of the narrative with the courtroom chapters with a hundred pages to spare, at which point she fills in the back story that leads her characters to their collisions in Hokitika. The verve goes out of the storytelling at this point, it must be said; so many juicier enigmas are left unresolved in the main body of the text that it seems odd to spend an extended denouement sketching in lesser mysteries in the narrative’s deep background. It is, to put it bluntly, a mistake, though not one that significantly dents the otherwise compelling facade of The Luminaries.

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