The Luminaries, Explained

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

A Guide by Raymond Huber © 2020



Structure – Spheres Within Spheres

Themes – Astrology and Cosmic History

Writing Style

The Heart Of It – Place


This is a complex, finely crafted mystery, written in the style of a nineteenth century novel; and only the second New Zealand book to win the Man Booker Prize. At one level it’s an historical crime novel about the lust for gold, but the deliberate ‘spheres within spheres’ structure suggests something deeper.

The luminaries of heaven, the governors of the world, they considered gods. – The Book of Wisdom 13:2

The Plot in a Nutshell
Part 1 is long and convoluted but the wind-up is needed to appreciate the unwinding that follows. The opening 40 pages is simply Walter Moody entering a hotel in Hokitika and meeting a group of suspicious men (The Twelve). It’s a masterpiece of scene-setting; a suspense-builder that draws you in before you know it. One of The Twelve, Balfour, interrogates Moody and the tension mounts as Moody suspects everyone is listening.
Then the plot thickens for about 300 pages, almost blocking the flow – but the reader must ‘hang tight’ (to use an idiom from the novel) because the complexity is deliberate. Balfour relates a mystery concerning the key characters: Crosbie Wells, Lydia Wells, Emery Staines, Anna Wetherell and Francis Carver.
His narrative links back to each of The Twelve who tell their version of events surrounding the death of Crosbie Wells. Several of them have benefited from Wells’ death and are driven by guilt or greed to play detective, untangle the mystery, and lay any blame on someone else. The group have gathered at the hotel to discuss the list of suspects.
A large amount of gold is associated with Wells and there’s much speculation about where the gold came from, who owns it, where it is now (it’s changed hands many times). Some of it is sewn into the linings of Anna’s dresses – clearly not a great hiding place, as several characters ‘stumble’ across it. Anna is an attractive young woman and much of the action centres on her: a shooting, an overdose, and love of course. As someone says, ‘Things keep happening to you’ (p. 233). Carver is cast as the villain and everyone hates him: he has been an opium smuggler, blackmailer, and gold thief.
Mercifully, Part 1 ends with a summary (p.341) of the interconnected characters and events. The pace becomes faster in the other Parts as there’s more direct action. The court scene (Part4) is a dramatic high point which reveals much of the mystery. The final Parts tie up the loose ends and focus on the true heart of the characters.

Structure – Spheres Within Spheres
This is a highly structured, plot-driven novel, perhaps less concerned with character development. The Parts are halved in length as the novel progresses, ending with chapters only a few paragraphs long – like the classic Russian Doll toy – beginning with the big picture and then drilling down to the core of the story. Within each Part there are similar ‘nested’ structures as characters interview others characters who in turn tell their story. And these aren’t just random divisions: everyone is interconnected in a very complex web of events. The novel is also structured with Astrological signs.
Moody is one of the few anchors in the whirlpool of recounts. Early in the book he recalls a moment of horror, frozen in time, which he calls ‘a sphere within a sphere’ (p.23). The symbol of spheres within spheres runs through the novel as the story delves back in time again and again to try and uncover a kernel of truth. The complexity is deliberate and is a frustration to Moody (as well as the reader at times). The narrative is ‘convoluted by countless interruptions, clarifications, and echoes – all chasing one another, as endless circles’ (p.341). Moody spells it out for us (p.281):

I am very conscious of the fact that the pertinent facts of this tale are being relayed to me second-hand – and in some cases, third-hand…I contend that there are no whole truths, there are only pertinent truths.

An example of the third-hand ‘nesting’: Frost confides in Mannering and together they interrogate Quee who has just questioned Sook who has relayed his conversation with Tauwhare! The narrative is described as ‘disjunctive and chaotic’ (p.343), ‘the plot thickens’ in extreme, but there’s pleasure in the writing (just don’t try to remember who signed what or where the gold came from). Catton has not explained why she used a mathematical structure. However she has said,

The shape and form of the book made certain kinds of editorial suggestions not only mathematically impossible, but even more egregious, astrologically impossible.

This is revealing because I think the only real weakness in the novel is the repetition and long- winded convolution of Part 1 – some editing would have improved the flow.

Astrology – The Outer Sphere
Catton has described this as ‘an astrological murder mystery’. This astrology is not the vague variety of newspaper horoscopes; this astrology focuses more on personality types (determined by the time of one’s birth). The Character Chart at the very start of the novel divides the characters into Stellar and Planetary groups – they represent the stars and planets, which astrology claims influence human lives. The Stellar characters are more distant from the action: they narrate the story, gossiping and speculating about the Planetary characters who are more actively involved in the crimes and passions of the story.
At the beginning of each Part there is an astrological chart (a circle with 12 divisions). The symbols around the outside are the signs (Aquarius etc) and the symbols within the segments are the planets and sun – and these create the chapter titles such as ‘Mercury in Sagittarius’. Catton appears to have used these aspects to inform her plot and characters. For example, in Part 1 the Sun is in Capricorn, when people born under this sign tend to be highly structured, narrow and fixed, serious – sure enough this was when narrators were ‘reserved, exacting, and lofty in our distance’ (p.364). In the final chapter the Sun is in Scorpio, which apparently is a period of intensity, sex and death; all of which feature in that intense little chapter.
Astrology also relates to the spheres within spheres symbolism in the story (and the diminishing Parts – see cover image). It hints at an inevitability in the characters’ lives (p.203):

Onward also rolls the outer sphere – the boundless present, which contains the boundless past.

Astrological influences were said to determine the fate of humans (of course, the characters are completely predetermined by Catton). The spiritual is debunked in the character Lydia Wells but others have mystical experiences, including Anna and Emery who share an astrological birth chart. I suspect some expertise in astrology (which I don’t have) is required to fully appreciate the astrological framework.

Theme – Cosmic History
At one level this is an entertaining mystery with characters driven by the desire for gold. But the deliberate structure suggests something deeper to me. Catton has not ‘explained’ her novel but we can speculate about its underlying theme, as her own characters would have done.

There’s a clue in the Note to Reader at the start of the book which speaks of ‘faith in the vast and knowing influence of the infinite sky.’ The characters in the novel experience remarkable connections and the coincidences pile up until page 350 when Moody observes, weightily,

A string of coincidences is not a coincidence.

The astrological chapter headings also suggest hidden forces at play. The other clue to theme is the ‘spheres within spheres’ symbol: each Part getting smaller and smaller, each event dissected more finely to get to the essence. Taken together, the coincidences, the stars and the structure suggest that the theme is a sense of meaning and connection. In short, the novel’s universe has meaning.

There’s a parallel in the real universe where science has revealed similar patterns. Matter can be observed as smaller and smaller particles (from organisms to cells, molecules to atoms) until we reach the quantum level where particles are intimately connected with each other and with humans (the ‘observer effect’). A string of ‘coincidences’ were required for life to develop in the universe, from the finely balanced physical laws to the cosmic birth of atoms. Those same 13 billion year old atoms make up our bodies today – our presence is deeply rooted in cosmic history (‘the infinite sky’). Our interaction with the universe is still being uncovered: for example, the ‘observer effect’ suggests a connection between consciousness and atoms.

The title ‘The Luminaries’ has many possible meanings. It could refer to The Twelve men who are the important people in the town; or to some mysterious heavenly ‘governors’; or simply to Anna and Emery. These two lovers are the most luminous characters, young and innocent, the Sun and the Moon.

The book mimics (and often parodies) the style of a nineteenth century novel: long and leisurely; many characters, described in detail; italicised chapter headings; archaic words (eg. importunate, comportment, mullioned); and censored swear words, I’ll be d–ned! The only modern touch is the Russian doll structure. It’s like a Dickens melodrama in a colonial New Zealand setting. The language has a formal tone but with sly humour and colourful phrasing. Plot machinations include overheard conversations, people getting knocked out or drugged, disguised identities, and revelations of family connexions. One example: ‘Lauderback believing his half-brother Crosbie Wells to be the half-brother, on his mother’s side of the blackguard, Francis Carver’ (p.791). It’s gossip on a grand scale as ‘Unconfirmed suspicion tends over time to become wilful, fallacious…’ (p.364); a trope commonly used in Downton Abbey. There’s a touch of Wodehouse too: ‘It was jolly bad form to bother a man on a Sunday
afternoon’ (p.422); and when a character summarizes the complexities of Part 1 (p.141), saying, ‘You must agree this smacks of plotting.’

Perhaps that’s Catton poking fun at us. The names are drawn from historical records but they are also a play on character: Carver, Staines, Moody, Frost and Mannering. Chapter headings are a parody of the Victorian novel becoming so elaborate they are longer than the chapters. The use of ‘we’ as omniscient narrator also lightens the tone: ’We shall therefore leave Thomas Balfour standing on the wharf’ (p.118). This ‘we’ might refer to the heavenly governors (hinted on page 364).

Catton also uses the style of the classic early 20th century crime novel. There are several possible murders and frauds to untangle. Each character tells his version of events – the detective inhabits each one as they interrogate suspects and discern motives on our behalf (Moody takes the role often). It ‘seems every man is implicated’ (p.170), a list of suspects is made, the group are gathered in the hotel, and there’s a courtroom scene: all very Agatha Christie.

There’s also a little of the romantic historical novel (although there are few women): ‘When he was with her, a pure and liquid adoration filled the chambers of his heart’ (p.296) is almost Mills and Boon. It’s a credit to Catton that the historical research is so seamlessly woven into the plot that we don’t notice we’re leaning about the gold rush or type-setting a newspaper.

The rich language is a highlight of the book. There are many long, satisfying sentences that paint an entire picture, but here are some shorter examples:

Nicely impenetrable: ‘The men of the Crown Hotel, whose nexus of allegiance is stitched, after all, in the bright thread of time and motion.’ (p.364). Vibrant: ‘The storm was borne on greenish winds.’ (p.18). Perfect imagery: ‘the salt on his trousers had dried, most provokingly, in tides of white.’ (p.8) . Original: ‘A dead man looks created….as a sculpture looks created.’ (p.60). Thoughtful: ‘The rough simplicity of the place only made him draw back internally, as a rich man will step swiftly aside, and turn glassy, when confronted with a beggar in the street.’ (p.6). Descriptive: ‘What an unfortunate face he had – caught in a perennial boyhood, with that bunched mouth, that pouting bottom lip, those teeth like nubbins.’ Unexpected: ‘gold nuggets…as big as a lady’s pistol’ (p.10). Eloquently verbose: ‘In his mind a protective glaze had been applied to the crystal forms of high abstraction’ (p.129).

New Zealand – The Heart Of It
Catton has some fresh descriptions of New Zealand landscape and an insight into our gold- rush history. She captures the wildness and vulnerability of the West Coast in some fine sentences (p.19):

…a narrow corridor of flat land between the coastline and the sudden alps, battered by the endless surf that turned to smoke on the sand.

The ‘sudden alps’ is such a great image for the abrupt Southern Alps. Page 370 has a long, vivid description of the Coast with nikau fronds like the flukes of whales, the bronze laquer of the Taramakau River, the smoky mist of not-quite-rain, and the twisting flanks of the glaciers.
The town of Hokitika, ‘between jungle and surf at the southernmost edge of the civilised world’ (p.6) is not unlike the Wild West (Catton was absorbed in the TV series, Deadwood, while writing the novel). Hokitika is portrayed as an exciting place back then with gold, shipwrecks, opium, and prostitutes aplenty. In reality it was the busiest port in New Zealand, with a population of about 25,000 during the 1860s gold rush. There were 30 wrecked ships in the harbour area and up to 100 hotels. It was an unstable community with few families and only ‘three or four children’ (p151). There were few women and the appearance in the novel of female characters after 300 pages is a relief in a male-dominated community. Many women were treated like cattle (whores); and racism was rife against the Chinese (‘Chinese life is cheap in this country.’ p.325). Many Chinese miners came here under contract and gave most of their earnings to British corporations.

The gold-rush from 1866 to 1867 bought its share of trouble to Hokitika. The characters in the novel are driven by a desire for wealth: ‘Prospecting is an ugly business: it makes a man start thinking like a thief.’ (p.190). The biggest theft was the purchase from Maori of rich West Coast gold land (from the fiords to the palms) for 300 pounds (p.99). Miners would ‘salt’ their land with gold samples and then sell it and disappear. Some men were attracted to the golf fields as a way to escape their past: ‘Here on the goldfields, every man has a wish for secrecy.’ (p.324); and saw it as a chance for reinvention. It was a reflection of the wider New Zealand colonisation (p.14):

Yes, that’s the heart of it. We’re all from somewhere else.

Catton contrasts the gold fever with the way Maori respected the heritage of greenstone rather exploiting it: ‘Gold was like all capital in that it had no memory: its drift was always inward, away from the past.’ (p.104). Land was also treated as currency but once again the Maori character’s attitude shines (p369):

Land could not be minted! Land could only be lived upon and loved.

Further Reading
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi – inspired Catton as a child Hokitika Town by Charlotte Randall – Gold rush novel

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford- in the style of the era
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco – dense historical murder mystery. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray – stylish 19th century novel