Eleanor Catton creates an epic story of the New Zealand Gold Rush in her prize winning 2013 book, The Luminaries. It captivated and confused me, as Catton takes many disparate characters and creates a constellation of mystery. She builds it piece by piece, jumping forward and back in time, and utilizing many points of view. She expects her readers to work at the process, not just sit still and let it flow over them.
As the story opens, we learn that a small town called Hokitika is reeling from a series of unexplained events. A wealthy man vanishes. Another man dies, leaving a fortune townspeople didn’t know he had. A woman is found on the road, after apparently trying to take her own life. A group of twelve men gather to try and sort it all out.
And over the course of 800+ pages, Catton relays the twists and turns of truth, misconception, and outright falsehood. She introduces a swath of characters, starting with the most recent immigrant Walter Moody. Each character gains a chance to tell their own story, as well as share their perspective on the collective mysteries.
Catton is extremely cagey about unraveling the truth. Don’t expect to have a full grasp anywhere near the beginning. Every time I thought I had a sense of events, she drew a new picture that changed the pattern. As the night sky changes by day, week, and month, The Luminaries changes with each chapter, section, character, and story arc. And, to my mind, that’s a good thing.
Most of the characters have come to Hokitika in search of good fortune, if not an outright financial fortune. Their backgrounds are disparate, which makes for interesting reading since Catton also includes limited back stories for most of them. In addition, it helped make the audiobook unique. The narrator, Mark Meadows, deftly manages New Zealand, Chinese, Scottish, Maori, Australian, and European accents.
In astrology, the luminaries are the Sun and the Moon, and together they represent man’s consciousness and the spirituality therein. My interpretation of this tradition would be that it’s not related to religion, but to a man or man’s sense of the spirit or universe in and around them. And in literature, one of the significant conflicts used by authors has always been a character’s fight between the darkness and the light inside themselves. Catton uses this conflict as the central theme of The Luminaries.
I confess to mostly ignoring the significance of the astrological positions used by Catton in her chapter and section headings. She associates characters with signs of the zodiac, and still others are connected to planets. There are other more astrologically minded folks making plenty of connections between the signs and her characters. It’s a fascinating analysis.
I recommend this book for the reader who likes historical fiction in a unique place and time, with a hearty dose of mystery thrown in for good measure.