The Stars Align: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries
by Bethany Latham
Short-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, Eleanor Catton’s novel is a tale of the 1860s New Zealand gold rush. The Luminaries (Little Brown, US; Granta, UK) begins one stormy night, when a young man disembarks at the Hokitika quay, terrified by something he saw onboard ship. At his hotel, he accidentally intrudes upon a secret assembly of twelve disparate men, and a mystery is revealed. A prostitute has been discovered unconscious in the road, a victim of failed self-slaughter; a wealthy man has disappeared, and a penniless prospector is found dead…with a fortune in gold hidden in his humble cabin. Will all these points align into a decipherable constellation?
Catton expounds on The Luminaries’ meticulous structure, which uses astrology as a framework: “The cast is quite large: twelve ‘zodiacal’ characters, seven ‘planetary’ characters, and one ‘terrestrial’ character around whom everybody else moves. Their interrelation and motion over the course of the book follows the movement of the heavens over the year 1865-66, as seen from the Hokitika goldfields.
“This astrological dimension found its way into the book in a way that was mostly thematic: I wanted to play with both definitions of the word ‘fortune’. I discovered a computer program that could generate a star chart — a fixed portrait of the heavens — from any position on earth, and from any moment in history. I typed in Hokitika’s co-ordinates, and the date that gold was first discovered there, to see what was happening in the skies at that time. I spent a couple of weeks scrolling through the years and watching the planets move — just observing, half-dreaming, waiting for a sign. Eventually some of the patterns clarified, and I could see the beginning of a story.”
But Catton didn’t want the structural conceit to dominate: “I wanted it to exist behind, or above, the story, occluded except to the initiated, visible only to those who cared to look. I have come to see astrology in the way I see the Greek pantheon: not something to be believed in, exactly, but more of a repository for cultural knowledge and history that is rich in meaning and significance. As a system, it allows for incredibly nuanced internal patterning.”
The Luminaries features a pitch-perfect evocation of setting, an outgrowth of Catton’s native landscape. Raised in Christchurch, she also spent time on New Zealand’s West Coast, which she describes as “stunning, thickly rainforested, bordered on one side by high mountains, and on the other by a dangerous sea. The sense of ‘frontier’ is written into the landscape; it’s a lush, savage, vertiginous place.” The Hokitika goldfields were, Catton says, very different in character from those (e.g., the Klondike) that preceded them: “partly because of the climate, and partly because goldfields legislation developed a great deal over those decades…That gave me a lot to work with in terms of laying down the pattern of the plot.”
The Luminaries is, amongst many other things, a pastiche. As such, it both celebrates and transcends the conventions of the Victorian novel. Catton explains, “My own worldview is not at all Victorian, and my readership isn’t either. I wanted to play with the form, but not in a way that flouted my own values as a person and as a writer. One thing that really bothers me about some ensemble-cast stories is the way that minority characters are frequently denied the psychological breadth and depth afforded to the white male characters; as tokens, they often become representations of a single quality, and their character arcs tend to be smaller, simpler, and more thematically incidental than the arcs of white men.” Catton notes that the structural conceit helped to avoid this, since the characters’ psychology had to fit within their astrological archetypes, keeping “everything in balance.”
A corollary issue is how minorities should be treated, in the interests of historicity, by the other characters. “Racism and sexism,” says Catton, “were codified in Victorian society in all sorts of ways, and I had to be careful in navigating that territory…I didn’t want to patronise the past, but I didn’t want to whitewash it either. The most important thing to me was to treat each character as a complex individual, capable of subtle self-regard, and capable of change.”
Explaining that Moby-Dick and The Brothers Karamazov were her two most direct Victorian influences, Catton stresses that, “For me, the most important test of any historical fiction is plausibility, which is not at all the same as realism or historical accuracy; ‘plausibility’ has that overtone of belief: you must write something that could be believed in, that somebody wants to believe in. It’s much more about gaining the reader’s trust than about proving the writer’s expertise.”
And Catton, unlike many of her contemporaries, has a refreshing take on the audience for whom she writes: “I’ve always liked the idea that one writes for an imagined audience of every author one has ever read — a prospect that at first seems terrifying, and after a while feels more like a healthy challenge. It’s very important to assume that your reader is smarter, more well-read, and more multifarious than you are. The worst kind of writing is that which condescends to its readers, or imagines itself better than its readers. The biggest compliment a reader can pay to a writer is the wish to read their book again, but it would feel vain to hope for that. I think that what I most hope for is that a reader would finish the book in a redemptive state of mind — feeling as though the book’s loves and losses have worked upon them in some redemptive way.”
[Editorial note: shortly after the writing of this article, The Luminaries was announced as the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.]
About the contributor: BETHANY LATHAM is HNR’s Managing Editor.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 66, November 2013