Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

This is my speech for the launch of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries at Unity Books in Wellington, 3 August 2013. ‘Fergus’ is Fergus Barrowman, my husband, and Ellie’s New Zealand Publisher. I was honoured that Ellie asked me to launch her novel.

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I have a habit from my student days of writing page references and brief notes on the flyleaves of books when it’s a book I have to say something about. When I first started reading The Luminaries I was conscientiously doing this with my launch speech in mind, but, once I came to write the speech I discovered I’d left off my note-taking at page 262 with a brief ‘very funny’. This was the point where it completely slipped my mind that I had to react in any articulate way to what I was reading, and probably began to either annoy—or possibly please—Fergus (on the brown couch reading manuscripts) with my Ah Ha! and Oh No! and the Bastard! and my general squirming around finding comfortable positions so that I could keep on lying there hour after hour, balancing the book on its edge and tormenting its spine. Thus proving two things: Victoria University Press’s hardback edition is a robust piece of bookmaking, and that Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is, first and foremost, a gripping and infinitely surprising mystery novel. This high degree of suspense and sheer reading pleasure is the cumulative result of all the novel’s other astonishing richnesses. In equal measure, the beauty of its writing, the devilish intricacy of its plot, its and loving interest in human minds and motivations, and it’s extraordinary mathematical architecture. And, of course, all these virtues are interdependent.

My plan for this speech is to try to describe what the experience of reading Ellie’s totally one of a kind novel was like for me.

The Luminaries is a book where things move and are altered. All but one of the characters is from elsewhere—not Hokitika and the west coast. And Te Rau Tuwhare, who most naturally knows how to live where he is, keeps trying with puzzled patience to correct various of the book’s fortune-seekers in their attitudes to what is valuable—though, notably, he agrees with others about who is valuable. Ellie’s characters are seeking their fortunes and trying figure out how to live where they find themselves, with each other, and with themselves. Many are transmuted in the course of the story—in ways that are echoed by the gold of the contested fortune that is so central to the plot. Gold mined in Otago, siphoned from a safe, smuggled, hidden, sewn into garments, seeded back into a dry claim, panned again from gravel, then smelted and stamped—that is, finally named and set—only to be stolen again, hidden, found again, and fought over. And believe me I’m not telling you much because, no matter what order it happens in, we don’t discover it that order. Because, whether we are learning about gold or people we are shown that their eventual shapes have no greater interest, or currency, than all their successive forms. Everyone and everything changes. Solitary people are befriended. Law-abiding people commit crimes. People are gulled, then undeceived. They fall, and are returned to innocence. And the gold is no simple allegory. It’s only one of the chimerical things the reader has to keep their eyes on. There are letters, sea chests, lost and hidden people, people in sea chests, guns, bullets shot from guns that end up in the darnedest places. The novel’s plot is like a shell game played with dozens of shells, some of them covering startling compressed wonders like a magician’s silk flowers. Understandings are bundled up in the plot, then burst into sight at ten times their expected volume.

Some of my favourite things: Te Rau Tuwhare being forced to keep a tangi’s vigil at some distance from the body—and his thoughts about that. Actually, lots of characters’ thoughts about lots things. The justice’s clerk, Gasgoine’s strange loving memories of his dead wife, and her burial at sea. The whole scene in the little gold diggers shack on the gravels of the Arahura river with two Chinese men who don’t quite approve of one another, one with some English, the other with very little, a blustering ridiculous bully, a well-meaning and slightly timid young man, a gun, and an excitable dog. Or the broiling tenderness of the dark and seething Edgar Clinch when he thinks of his preparations for the prostitute Anna Wetherall’s bath night. Gasgoine slyly banking the villain Francis Carver’s good will by explaining the niceties of maritime insurance while, at the same time, gathering information and getting a measure of the man. Ah Sook’s terrible first weeks in the port of Sydney. The seance and the soirée leading up to it. And I loved it every time anyone emerged from one of Hokitika’s tent-like timber buildings with ‘breathing’ scrim walls to see the mountains or the the harbour bar shining in glimpses whenever the theatre curtains of west coast weather part. And all of it so alive that I felt fed when the characters were having breakfast, drunk when they were drinking, wet when they were rained on, and that I’d taken a wound when one of the characters was betrayed—as if I, the novel’s reader, was also its astral twin.

The narrative voice of this novel is perhaps its greatest asset—a masterful ‘we’ as changeable as the contested gold. Sometimes patient and reflective, especially in describing how the characters see themselves. Often graceful or brisk—in dialogue especially each character utterly distinct and alive. And then there’s the deft turns in tone, which simultaneously remind you you’re being told a story, and that the story matters, while making feel comfortably trusting of the author and that you’re in her very good hands. These deft turns are often funny, take this, from page 262, the occasion of my last fly leaf notation:

‘He began speaking, for example, by observing that upon a big tree there are always dead branches; that the best soldiers are never warlike; and that even good firewood can ruin a stove—sentiments which, because they came in very quick succession, and lacked any kind of stabilising context, rather bewildered Quee Long. The latter, impelled to exercise his wit, retaliated with the rather acidic observation that a steelyard always goes with the weights—implying, with the aid of yet another proverb, that his guest had not begun speaking with consistency.
We shall therefore intervene, and render Sook Yongsheng’s story in a way that is accurate to the events he wished to disclose, rather than to the style of his narration.’

I think that, ultimately, there’ll be a lot written about the decisions Ellie has made regarding the structure of The Luminaries. Astrology is a remarkable choice. An ancient artificial systems for making sense of human nature and what happens to us. The Luminaries is a book shaped by the stories in astrology—stories about birth, timing, and fate. The novel’s chosen system stands in for nature, something already present outside what the characters’ social circumstances make happen to them. Astrology comes with it all kinds of imagery and metaphorical significances that relate to time-honoured attempts to find shapeliness in life stories. Astrology provides Ellie with templates for the temperaments of her 12 good men (or mostly good men). Temperaments separate to the biographies shaping each one’s attitude and behaviour (almost as if Ellie wants to let the nature/nurture argument about character play itself out in a zodiac mask.) Also the novel’s astrological/golden mean design gives it a disciplined mathematical structure that creates an enormously pleasurable sense of pace. Because the book is in 12 parts, and each part is half the length of the one before, as it goes on the story accelerates—very like accelerating montage, that great tool of film directors. The story begins gradually, like the tide coming into a wide estuary, then it quickens, like the tide coming into a wide estuary, then it’s a river, then it’s a river in flood, and in the end its swooping like the albatrosses that first bring its lovers together. The pace of the novel is a miracle—mathematical, but not mechanical. It’s the mathematics of nature, and once you’ve surrendered to The Luminaries and you’re in its grip you’ll feel that pace, and its poetry, in your body, in your bones and blood.

6 comments to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

  • […] Elizabeth Knox’s launch speech from last week, David Larsen’s fantastic profile of her in The Listener and for those in Wellington, […]

  • Elizabeth

    I hope Jane Campion is reading this novel. I would love to see her film version!

  • What a great introduction and analysis of the novel. Many of your favourite bits mirrored mine. The séance was a great scene! It’s really interesting reading your thoughts on how the astrological framework helps support the themes of the book. Thanks very much.

  • A concise analysis of the novel that takes my breath away. The Luminaries is poise and wonderful. Thank you

  • Annette Moffat

    It’s a very enjoyable book – richly detailed descriptions of people & places, as someone said it’s like a costume drama – but so much more substance ! Yes the baths that Clinch prepared for Anna, such well described pleasure, the suspense when Ah Sook was hiding under the bed with what he thought was the gaoler’s wifes’s protection – just 2 examples of riveting reading.

    I didn’t pay much attention to the astrology dimension – not interested enough & lack of time though I googled a few symbols at one stage. However the surreal aspect really got under my skin – it bothered me alot as to who the apparition in the Godspeed’s hold was – a friend wasn’t interested & just accepted that without it affecting her reading – but I was haunted by it – also the transmittal of food & opium from Anna to Emery – well it’s something to do with astral twins but way beyond my pragmatic nature !

  • Annette Moffat

    I’ve just realised why I had trouble with the angel in Vintner’s Luck ! I’m too pragmatic ! It’s like modern art – I want to enjoy it – I can enjoy it ! I’ve appreciated getting access to your review Elizabeth & other’s comments, it helps while I tussle with the wonder of books like Vintner’s Luck & The Luminaries.

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