Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

“You must not forget that beauty and conviction are always persuasive, whatever the context in which they appear.”

It is clear that Eleanor Catton set out to write a good book, not a long book, but The Luminaries is undeniably a long book. However, be assured that the pleasure you will derive from it is perfectly in proportion with the investment of time required. The size of the book is integral to its beautiful yet precise structure and once you begin, you will be glad there are 832 pages of this story to enjoy.

Catton states two main streams which flowed into the creation of the novel; an ambition to write a heavily-plotted, page-turning gold rush tale which collided with a more recent fascination with astrology and the system of the zodiac. The Luminaries is an intricately plotted story, patterned on the movement of the stars, and one that will endlessly reward readers wanting to explore and divine its secrets.

The Luminaries is a novel centred on gold. As well as the New Zealand gold rush setting, Catton has drawn on both the golden spiral and the golden ratio for inspiration. The former is demonstrated through the inward-spiralling lengths of the twelve parts of the novel – each half the length of its predecessor, and also mirrored in the ever-halving amount of missing gold in the story. The latter, also known as the divine proportion, is a ratio that dictates the shape of most book covers as well as, aptly, doorways. It is supposed to create the most pleasing shapes to our eye and is used throughout art and architecture as well as converging with the Fibonacci sequence.

The golden ratio, 1.618… (it’s an irrational number like pi) is represented by the Greek letter phi or ɸ - which is used as the paragraph break symbol throughout the book, assuring you nothing here is accidental. Also factoring into these concepts are two non-fiction books Catton read; Gödel Escher Bach by Douglas Hofstadter which talks of the idea of ‘strange loops’ and creating self-referential systems that replicate themselves and I and Thou by Martin Buber which explores self and relationships. Take the ideas explored in those two books, introduce notions of gold in all its forms, filter it through Catton and you get the golden ratio, which can be expressed as a is to b what b is to a + b, turned into a metaphor for human relationships – I am to you what you are to both of us.

It is impossible to separate out all of Catton’s tightly woven themes and influences, everything is inextricably coiled together. The book ties in the above ideas of self, the assertions of identity and character the zodiac makes with our Dickensian omniscient narrator who almost mischievously describes characters and interrupts their versions of events:

“We shall here excise their imperfections, we shall apply our own mortar to the cracks and chinks of earthly recollection, and resurrect as new the edifice that, in solitary memory, exists only as a ruin.” 

One of the fundamental shifts since the original 19th novels were written is the greater understanding we have of psychology and how this has changed the way we perceive selfhood. Catton has spoken of people’s fear of being diagnosed from the outside which leads to an uncomfortableness with a narrator telling us how the characters are.

As Catton said in Edinburgh, “A lot of characters in 19th century literature live in adverbs – confident narrative voices. I feel I was alone in feeling the adverb was this really awesome part of speech that gets dumped on a lot… Reader, you just settle down – this is the way it was.” The character descriptions we get are detailed and playful and spring from characters assessments of each other to our adverb-filled narrator.

“And yet Balfour was changed – there was a new shrewdness to the other man’s aspect, a new sharpness to his gaze. Moody felt energised by the alteration. He realised, with a surge of excitement, that he had underestimated him.”

In the Note to the Reader at the start of the novel we are told the book could be seen to be Piscean – “An age of mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things” and this part sentence perhaps makes a more telling summary of the novel than the blurb on its cover. Mirrors and twinship are worth pulling out and thinking about in terms of Catton’s relationship ratio as at the very core of the novel are what we come to realise are our titular characters. The opium-addicted whore Anna Wetherell and the missing young prospector Emery Staines are our twin poles, our sun and moon, our luminaries.

Alongside them, as detailed in the character chart, are twelve men each representing a sign of the zodiac and the other five planetary characters. The twelve zodiac characters are men we meet at the very beginning of the novel, gathered together at the Crown Hotel to try and solve a mystery of missing gold and a dead man. Over the regular wheeling of these twelve men we have the irregular dance of the planetary characters who weave in and out of the story. You would be completely satisfied if you read this novel straight as a murder mystery, but the thrill of excitement comes from paying a little more attention to the astrological charts at the start of each part and choosing to follow Catton down her astrological rabbit hole.

Catton used the genuine astrological charts for New Zealand at the time the novel is set (1866) to dictate the plot of her story, and you can track the influences using the charts at the start of each part and the chapter headings as well. For example, the very first chapter is entitled Mercury in Sagittarius which revolves around Walter Moody (Mercury) being introduced to the twelve men by Thomas Balfour (Sagittarius). Catton then goes ever deeper; Balfour is the jovial extroverted Sagittarius, the sign of the zodiac with the motto ‘we think’ and therefore the group’s initial spokesman. Moody is Mercury, the planet of communication and reason, a planet neutral to the moon and the sun and the only planet without an astrological twin. So when we see that Moody is a lawyer, our independent newcomer, and integral to the ultimate solving of the mystery we can revel in Catton’s commitment to her astrological skeleton. Going one step even deeper, Mercury is only visible in New Zealand for two months and indeed Moody quickly moves from his place centre stage to reappear again towards the end of the novel to help tie things up.

All of these considerations make the sheer enjoyment of the story even more incredible but Catton is committed to the belief that you don’t have to sacrifice character for plot. “I am fascinated and enraged by the definitions of literary and genre fiction. The idea that plot only exists to elicit character in literary fiction and that characters only exist to nudge along plot in genre fiction. Why does it have to be structure or plot? I would get defensive if someone claimed that being entertaining is inherently lowbrow and befuddling highbrow.” 

The Luminaries truly manages to strike that balance and it would be a disservice to Catton as a storyteller to underplay how engaging and entertaining the book really is. Her enthusiasm for long form television series is clear and Catton paints herself into seemingly impossible corners with her devilishly complicated structure only to extricate herself in ways that are by turns playful and moving.  This is a novel of missing bullets, hidden gold and scarred villains, confessions and revelations. It will elicit gasps at perfectly pitched reveals and frantic page turning through court scenes and brawls. It will also stir your heart with a love story that is fundamental to the book despite only emerging towards its close.

The Luminaries is a novel that is satisfying in every way. It is flawlessly conceived and realised and will provoke you to gasps of delight and wonder. Catton has created a masterpiece of her own strange loops, and they are soaring and golden.

(Quotes from Eleanor are from her events at the Edinburgh Book Festival and the Man Booker events at the Library of Birmingham.)