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Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton’s first novel Rehearsal was a superb debut novel, so this, her second novel, was one I had been eagerly looking forward to, not least because it made the Man Booker longlist and, indeed, was installed as favourite by some but also because it is 830 pages and I am glutton for good, long novels. (It subsequently won the prize.) However, it is very different from its predecessor. For a start, it is set in 1866 in New Zealand (the location of Rehearsal was very ambiguous), specifically in Hokitika, a small town on the West Coast, now famous for its jade but then, at least for those not of Maori origin, famous for its goldfields. It is also very much a plot-based novel, with a complex and ever-changing whodunnit plot.

The story is written in what I assume is meant to be a formal, quasi-Victorian style, though with some anachronisms (no Victorian would ever have used gift as a verb and no Victorian would have said Hi, there!). The book opens on 14 January 1866, with twelve men seated in the lounge of the somewhat shabby Crown Hotel. Unusually, these men are not all of European origin. Two are Chinese and one is Maori. They have all come together and they all are involved in or have knowledge of some key recent events in the area. The bare bones of the story (or, rather, stories) are as follows.

Alistair Lauderback is planning on becoming the first MP for the region. To show that he is one of the people, he comes down to Hokitika from Dunedin not by ship but overland, with two companions. The three men arrive at a hut and stop there to ask for water and, possibly, some food. However, on entering the hut, they find the owner seated at the table, his head on his hands and dead. He has only just died, as the kettle is still boiling on the stove and has not dried out. They hurry off to Hokitika to notify the authorities only to find, lying in the road, a woman they later learn is called Anna Wetherell, a prostitute and habitual opium user. They take her back to Hokitika, where she recovers but has no recollection of how and why she was lying unconscious in the road. The dead man is identified as Crosbie Wells, a man few people knew. However, when Harald Nilssen, a commission merchant, does an inventory of Wells’ hut, he finds large quantities of gold, valued at over £4000, a lot of money in those days. With what seems indecent haste, Wells’ land is sold to Edgar Clinch, a hotelier. Unexpectedly, a bit later, a woman arrives from Dunedin – Lydia Wells née Greenway – claiming to be Wells’ widow and having a marriage certificate to prove it. She is therefore entitled to his gold, his land, already sold to Clinch, and his other assets, as he left no will. She is known to one or two of the men as the owner of a brothel in Dunedin. We, and the rest of the characters, pick up dribs and drabs of this plot as the book progresses, with Catton having one character revealing to another (and to us) a key fact we were unaware of, which completely changes our views on who has done what to whom and why. The twelve key characters also come to this conclusion and decide to met at the Crown hotel on the evening of 14 January, so that each man, all of whom seem to have some key piece of information unknown to (most of) the others, can reveal his information. Some of this information is revealed most reluctantly.

The fact that the number of men is twelve is undoubtedly significant. Catton has an introduction about the signs of the Zodiac and each chapter is headed with a zodiacal position, e.g. Mercury in Sagittarius. What does it mean? I do not have the faintest idea except that there are twelve signs of the Zodiac. Twelve is also the number of men who serve on a jury and this group does act as a sort of jury, judging those who are absent, either because they were not invited or because they are dead (or presumed dead). In the introduction, Catton refers to these twelve as stellar, presumably because they are each linked to a sign of the Zodiac. Crosbie Wells, the dead man, is called terra firma and the other characters called planetary. However, the twelve men soon become thirteen as Walter Moody, a young Scot intent on making his fortune in the goldfields, has just arrived on the Godspeed, a ship captained by Francis Carver, a nasty man but one who is key to events. Moody is tired and just wants a drink but the thirteen use him to tell their story. It turns out that all thirteen – Moody included – have some key piece of information. The entire telling of the various stories and events immediately afterwards, takes up the first part of the book, which last for about half of the book. Subsequent parts will each be half the length of the previous part. The subsequent parts will continue to have revelations which make us revise our views of what is happening.

The story seems far more complicated as we move on but then, as the chapters get ever shorter (ending up with the chapter summary being longer than the actual chapter), all is explained, as we get a fairly straightforward narrative of the events that led up to the 14 January incidents as well as how things turned out (with one or two unexplained incidents). While a fascinating and clever novel, I must say that I preferred Rehearsal as, in this novel, I feel that Catton became so involved in the minutiae of the plot (as well as her zodiacal interest, most of which passed me by) that the strengths of her earlier book – the psychological examination, the complexity of ideas and in-depth scrutiny of humans and what drives them – have been shunted to one side. Still, if you do not mind 830 pages of a complicated, changing plot, you will enjoy this work.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Victoria University Press