Reverse Alchemy

Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize in 2013 for her novel, The Luminaries. This book has long been on my to-read list and the stars have finally aligned. I start her saga of the New Zealand gold rush while in country. The opening is promising.

On a dark and stormy night, a stranger comes to town. It’s the height of the gold rush on the west coast of New Zealand and Hokitika is the place to go trade your colour for paper money or drink or companionship. The stranger, Walter Moody, senses that something is afoot. He is particularly skilled at extracting confidences.

As a child he had known instinctively that it was always better to tell a partial truth in a willing aspect than to tell a perfect truth in a defensive way.

Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (Little Brown 2013)

There is much trading of candor throughout The Luminaries, though the truth is far from clear. The cast of characters include 2 opium dealers, a dead digger, a missing boy prospector, the whore with the proverbial heart of gold and the obligatory evil sea captain. The how and the why of their interconnection is the way Catton pulls you through her door stopper of a novel.

She also offers a form of time travel. Today, we can cross the Southern Alps to Arthur’s Pass in a few hours. In 1886, that was a hard 3 days journey by horseback. Imagine how the town of Hokitika would have looked back then.

The enormous number of vessels that had foundered on the bar were scattered as unhappy testament to the hazard below. There were thirty-some wrecks in total, and several were very new. Their splintered hulks wrought a strange barricade that seemed, dismally, to fortify the township against the open sea.

Local Talk

I love the period detail but, above all, the idiosyncratic language. A digger is a man panning for gold. A hatter is a digger who works alone. There are Chinese diggers who work as indentured servants to men who may be salting their own claims, that is adding gold to the ground to make it look valuable.

Te Rau Tauwhare is a Maori greenstone carver and occasional guide. Proud, handsome, and excellent at his craft, Te Rau nonetheless

worried that he was only an ornament, a shell without meat, a hollow clam; he worried that his own self estimation was a vain one.

The interactions between Te Rau and the white men in Hokitiki are painful. Te Rau is sought out for his information and then fobbed off with a coin or two. The shipping agent Thomas Balfour deigns to pat the Maori on the head like a dog or a well-behaved child.

The Royal We

Catton deploys an omniscient narrator who speaks in the royal we. This narrator moves freely from one character to the next, voicing that character’s thoughts and expressing the narrator’s own. This is a narrator as opinionated and delightful as any narrator Henry James might have conjured.

For example, when Thomas Balfour digresses from his account of the whereabouts of the missing boy prospector, the narrator steps in.

We shall here excise their imperfections, and impose a regimental order upon the impatient chronicle of the shipping agent’s roving mind; 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.

When Sook Yongsheng, hatter and opium dealer, embellishes his tale with too many Chinese proverbs, the narrator again intervenes

in a way that is accurate to the events he wished to disclose, rather than to the style of his narration […] vital, poetically exaggerated, and accented by proverbs, the meaning of which was always beautiful, but not always particularly clear.

Math and Myth

Catton structures her novel along astrological lines. Each part begins with an astrological chart and each chapter with the relevant zodiacal sign in ascendency. In her Note to the Reader, Catton warns that zodiacal signs do not appear as popular information would say but, rather, one month late. She produces a Character Chart that allocates her large cast into stellar, planetary, and earthly orbits. The point of it all remains a mystery to me.

Goodreads reviewers, smarter than me, have noticed that each chapter grows progressively shorter while the epigraphs become exponentially longer. It’s a very clever device to keep the reader turning the page. I also associate epigraphs with 19th century novels.

Epigraphs escort us safely across the boundary between the title page and the story. Easing us into narrative, epigraphs make us pause and notice the transition from the world to the work, from life to the novel. 

Rachel Sagner Buurma, “Do Epigraphs Matter?”in The New Republic, 6 Dec 2012

All this cleverness notwithstanding, it was hard for me to feel an emotional connection with the characters or their plight. Instead, we go round and round the central mystery of The Luminaries, wheeling like so many stars in a southern sky. Rather than ending with the back story, Catton could have let the reader come a little closer to her characters, maybe even close enough to touch.

8 Mar 2020 | Karen Kao