Now here’s the thing … I don’t make a practice of reading mysteries. I really don’t care about who dunnit. When Mr Gums and I watch television crime shows, I rarely concentrate enough to work out the plot intricacies, but I do watch the characters. I’m always interested in the detectives and their relationships. I want to know who they are and what makes them tick. And so, I must say that I got a little tired of the plot machinations in Eleanor Catton’s Booker prize-winning novel, The luminaries. I didn’t really want to expend effort to keep track of the complexities of whose gold went where, who told whom what, and so on. But, I did find the book an interesting read, nonetheless.
Why? Well, first and foremost because of the characters. In the first half of the novel, as the characters were being introduced, I was impressed by Catton’s understanding of human nature. Her characters, most of them anyhow, are nuanced – if that’s not too clichéd a term. Here for example is Thomas Balfour:
When a restless spirit is commissioned, under influence, to solve a riddle for another man, his energies are, at first, readily and faithfully applied. But Thomas Balfour’s energies tended to span a very short duration, if the project to which he was assigned was not a project of his own devising. His imagination gave way to impatience, and his optimism to an extravagant breed of neglect. He seized an idea only to discard it immediately, if only for the reason that it was no longer novel to him; he started in all directions at once. This was not at all the mark of a fickle temper, but rather, of a temper that is accustomed to enthusiasm of the most genuine and curious sort, and so will accept no form of counterfeit – but it was nevertheless, something of an impediment to progress.
This made me laugh. Not all descriptions did of course, but most are insightful of humanity.
There is also humour in the book – some funny scenes, and wry asides. Since we’re on Thomas Balfour, let’s stay with him. Here he is meeting the chaplain Cowell Devlin:
‘Good morning’, returned the reverend man, and from his accent Balfour knew at once that he was Irish; he relaxed, and allowed himself to be rude.
Thomas, as you might have guessed, is English – and this of course tells us more about him than about Devlin.
Perhaps at this point I should mention the plot, though as a Booker Prize Winner, its basic premise is probably known to most of you. The novel is set in the New Zealand goldfields, Hokitika mainly, over 1865 to 1866. The plot concerns the death of one man, the disappearance of another, an apparent suicide attempt, and the provenance of a gold fortune. There are 20 main characters – 12 described as stellar, representing the 12 astrological star signs; 7 described as planetary, representing, of course, the planets; and one, the dead man, described as terra firma. It’s a lot to keep in your head but Catton does provide a character chart at the front to help.
There is a lot to enjoy while reading this book, in addition to the characterisation and humour. The plot is intricate and fun to unravel if you enjoy mysteries. The goldfields setting is realistic, with its businessmen, publicans, politicians, prospectors, whores, opium dealers and tricksters, not to mention the salting and the duffers. The writing is sure. I enjoyed her use of imagery. Grey and yellow feature throughout as do references to spirits (ethereal, emotional, and alcoholic), ghosts, apparitions, phantoms, fog and mist. These all helped convey a sense of murkiness, and of things shifting before our eyes.
The main themes are to do with truth, lies and fraud, with love, loyalty and betrayal. It’s quite a cynical world that our characters find themselves in. As the not-yet dead man, Crosbie Wells, says to the whore, Anna Wetherell:
There’s no charity in a gold town. If it looks like charity, look again.
There is, of course, but it’s rare – and, as Wells advises, you have to be darned careful about who you trust, because, human nature being what it is, where there’s gold, there’s always greed.
The big challenge of this novel is its structure. I’ve already mentioned the structure of the characters. The astrological theme is carried through into the structure of the narrative. The book is divided into 12 parts which, I learnt at my reading group, are meant to align with the lunar cycle, each part being exactly half the length of the previous part. This didn’t feel artificial, because the increasingly shorter parts provided a rhythm to the unravelling of the plot. The other point to make about the structure is that the novel commences on 27 January 1866, 13 days after 14 January when the critical plot events take place. The novel then moves forward, through the trial and its aftermath, to 27 April 1866 (Part 4). In this part, we also jump back, in alternating chapters, to 27 April 1865, when the major players in the plot start, shall we say, “orbiting” each other, if not downright colliding. The novel then progresses forward again, ending on 14 January 1866, not quite back at the beginning, but on the day that precipitates the narrative.
There is, then, a certain circularity to it all, but what does it mean? Does this structure do anything for we readers? I’m not sure. There are intricate astrological charts at the beginning of each part showing where the 12 characters are positioned, astronomically speaking, on that date. I don’t have the astrological knowledge to know whether these charts added meaning or not. The circularity does, however, suggest another potential theme – which is, as chaplain Devlin says, that:
Some things are never done.
Devlin says something else too, which is reinforced by the way the narrative progresses via the stories of the various players:
never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view.
So, in the end, where did it all leave me? Wondering, in fact, whether it was just a little too clever for itself or, maybe, too clever for me. Either way, I did enjoy the read, and was impressed by the skill with which Catton executed her tale and the insight she has into human nature. Beyond that, I think it’s best if you decide for yourselves.
London: Granta, 2013