Victoria University Press, $35.00,
This is an extraordinary work. It is over 800 pages long, with a cast of characters to match and an intricately complex plot – or web of plots – revealed to us in glimpses, sudden revelations, implicit hints and, occasionally, logical explications. It has a time scheme of ultra-compression which doubles back on itself halfway through, and its setting is as limited as a stage set. Yet those self-imposed limitations – almost those of the classical unities – are enabling rather than restricting. One reaches for a suitable metaphor – the plot is like a fan unfolding, like Chinese boxes or Russian dolls, like geological layering.
From the outset we are, tantalisingly, invited to half-understand a complex of mysteries: where is Emery Staines; what did Walter Moody see on the barque Godspeed that frightened him so much; what is the purpose of the secret meeting in the Crown Hotel; who put the gold in Anna Wetherell’s orange whoring dress; what is the connection between the browbeaten wife of the town jailer and the Chinese hatter; where is Alistair Lauderback’s cabin trunk and why is he so anxious about it; how did Crosbie Wells die? Bafflement and illumination become part of the experience of reading as we share this bemusement with the characters themselves:
Thomas Balfour had not told his tale at all chronologically, and his narrative had been further convoluted by countless interruptions, clarifications and echoes – all chasing one another, as endless circles, going round. What a convoluted picture it was – and how difficult to see in its entirety!
The Luminaries is set in Hokitika between April 1865 and March 1866. We never question the veracity of that setting, although it is conveyed with extreme economy and without a hint of laboured research – and in fact there is no hint of an authorial purpose to reveal the reality of the past. Instead one feels the colonial world is chosen not as an exercise in historical recreation but because of its inchoate, unstable and shifting nature, a location where characters can appear and disappear, invent and reinvent themselves and their history, where names change, strangers are revealed as having shared pasts, and those apparently dead reappear.
Hokitika is almost an animate character in the plot, a battered network of precarious human structures and precarious human relationships:
It’s a perfect hive of contradictions! There’s a newspaper, and no coffee house to drink it in; there’s a druggist for prescriptions, but one can never find a doctor, and the hospital barely deserves its name. The store is always either running out of boots or socks, but never both at once, and all the hotels along Revell-street only serve breakfast, though they do so at all hours of the day.
The sea and the notorious Hokitika bar are the dangerous points of entry, characters often appearing in dramatic fashion, as in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or The Tempest. Inhabitants all seem to have been blown in and cling temporarily to a semblance of civility – the boarding house, the bank, the courthouse, the newspaper offices – or lapse into incivility in the pub, the brothel or the opium den. Here in the newspaper “the town’s Most Alluring Dancer also advertised her services as the town’s Most Discreet Accoucheuse. A whole column of the paper was devoted to missing prospectors … and an entire page to Barmaids Wanted”. As the bank, court and jail suggest, the town is there to service and regulate the extraction of gold, mainly from the diggings of Kaniere, a little up the road with its “Chinatown”, “a clutch of tents and stone cabins some few hundred yards upriver”. This is a circumscribed setting given the length of the book – we rarely leave these environs – but it doesn’t feel so. A move of scene to Dunedin halfway through seems shocking, and the reader, schooled in the centrality of Hokitika’s Revell Street, feels as if they have been exiled from the centre to the periphery, relaxing only when they return.
Circling this – structurally as well as actually – are the heavens. A “Note to the Reader” at the beginning of the novel speaks of “our faith in the vast and knowing influence of the infinite sky”. This is followed by a “Character Chart” where the players are divided into “Stellar”, “Planetary” and “Terra Firma” categories. A heading “Related House” lists physical settings, the Wells Cottage, the Reserve Bank, the West Coast Times Office and so on; under “Related Influence” are the forces that impel character and plot: Reason, Desire, Force, Command, Restriction and, more gnomically, “Outermost (formerly Innermost)” and “Innermost (formerly Outermost)”. Chapter headings also, though less rigorously, suggest the celestial; for example, “A Sphere within a Sphere”, “Orion Sets When Scorpio Rises”, or “The Old Moon” in the Young Moon’s Arms”. This latter is the augury seen in the traditional ballad, “Sir Patrick Spens”, where it presages the death by drowning of the loyal Sir Patrick and his Scottish lords. The insistent reminder that characters are operating within the machinery of the heavens is also reminiscent of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, where characters struggle to exercise free will against the forces of fate and destiny they are caught within.
In Catton’s novel, just as we are unsettled by the marginal nature of the society the book portrays – one chapter is called “Mutable Earth” – we also see, simultaneously, the characters caught in the almost mechanical operations of plot and counter-plot, while at the same time battling the structures of earthly power, greed and violence which entrap and exploit the vulnerable. One would have to go a long way to find villains as unpleasant as the scarred and vengeful ex-convict Francis Carver, the pimp Mannering, or the icily manipulative Lydia Wells of the House of Many Wishes. “I’ve never had a girl murdered, and I’ve never had a girl beat,” says Mannering and it doesn’t make us feel any better about him.
As a reader, one often reads in terms of comparison. The Luminaries looks back to 19th-century New Zealand novelists such as Charlotte Evans with their intricate sensational plots heavy with confused lovers, mistaken identities, the discovery of unknown family members and the loss and suppression of wills and inheritances. And Catton’s use of stylised plot summaries at the start of each chapter is a nod to this form. The Luminaries is not like, but is interesting to compare with, Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter duet, though Catton’s Hokitika lacks the fantastic elements of Knox’s Founderston. Catton’s novel is reminiscent of Maurice Shadbolt’s 1980 work The Lovelock Version; and it is – no praise from me could be higher – like the work of a number of Canadian authors, especially Jane Urquhart and the redoubtable Robertson Davies, where articulation of place, identity and memory is clear, confident and enabling. But The Luminaries is also like nothing else. We have had the compressed and lyrical use of history in works such as Hamish Clayton’s Wulf; we have had the accurate and documentary as in Shadbolt’s New Zealand Wars series; there is a burgeoning local industry in popular historical romance. The Luminaries is a romance, but in the old sense of the word – as in ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ or Shakespeare’s romances (one ship grounded on the Hokitika bar is called Titania), where loss, recuperation and transformation are regulated by the stars but also manipulated by human greed and ambition. In Catton’s work we have ghastly apparitions, shipwrecks, séances, murder and revenge, gold and opium. Secrets and information are as much a currency here as gold. “You are wonderfully free with one verb, I notice,” Lydia Wells tells Walter Moody. “What does it mean for you to know something? I fancy you put a lot of stock in knowing – judging from the way you speak.” There should be, says one character, different words for a secret of one’s own making and a secret held for someone else. The only crime in the goldfield, we are told, is fraud: salting a claim or its opposite, “crying a duffer”, and both these frauds are in operation, actually and metaphorically, throughout.
Above all, despite the length of the work, its complexity and the range of its intellectual allusiveness, it is the writing, elegant, confident, poetic in the best sense, the sense that drives rather than clogs the prose, that is the engine of The Luminaries. Catton writes with her ear as well as her intellect; her sentences have a graceful balance and the tone of her narration, sustained throughout the length of the novel, is both cool and tender. Look at the conclusion, where the two lovers speak:
“I feel – more than myself.”
“I feel – as though a new chamber of my heart has opened.”
“What is it?”
Jane Stafford, with Mark Williams, co-edited The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature.
The Luminaries was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Eleanor Catton won the award in December 2013.