Read from January 3rd to February 6th 2018
When she was 14, says Wikipedia, Eleanor Catton and her father went to Arthur’s Pass from Christchurch, their home city. She was immediately fascinated by the stories about the Gold Rush in the 1860s, and she will return later to the West Coast, this time going to Hokitika, the most famous center of the West coast Gold Rush, to study the documents and to look for names and personalities of those times. Thus was born The Luminaries.
Therefore, The Luminaries is a historical novel – let’s say in Victorian style, about 19th-century New Zealand, spiced with some elements of the gothic novel, that playfully show that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt in mankind’s philosophy. Or maybe the label was put in a hurry and history is only the background for a wonderful love story, literally (and literary J) proving that l’amor muove il sole e l’altre stele. Or maybe the love story, wonderful as it is, takes only secondary place to the powerful thriller that reveals once again that the sleep of reason produces monsters, with a touch of a mystery for whoever wants to challenge his “little grey cells”. Indeed it is. That is, it is all this and none of the above, a postmodern masterpiece that takes ingredients from many genres (nothing new here, it is what postmodernists have been doing for a long time now), to establish the compatibility chart between the narrative and the reader, daring the latter to choose among the many stories the one that speaks to him. For each one of the stories seems to have a hidden meaning.
The love story, cryptically announced by the title, corrects the tale (no pun intended), of the most known cross-starred lovers: according to many legends, once upon a time Sun and Moon had fallen madly in love, and were already husband and wife when God decided to make them the luminaries of the Earth: Sun for the day and Moon for the night, thus separating them, despite their supplications. It seems that they were so sad because of this that God found a compromise, creating the eclipses for them to meet now and then. The Author, god of the text, finds a better way to reunite them – interchanging souls, making them migrate from one body to another until they feel and think like one, in order to re-write not only the Moon-Sun myth, but also the androgyne myth:
Emery Staines (…) feels, whatever the difference in their respective stations, a certain bond with Anna Wetherell, a connexion, by virtue of which he feels less, rather than more, complete, in the sense that her nature, being both oppositional to and in accord with his own, seems to illumine those internal aspects of his character that his external manner does not or cannot betray, leaving him feeling both halved and doubled, or in other words, doubled when in her presence, and halved when out of it…
The thriller is not so much a thriller, either, although here we have the perfect protagonists, Moon and Sun (aka Emery Staines and Anna Wetherell), faced with the perfect antagonists, Mars and Venus (aka Francis Carver and Lydia Wells) and in between the other characters (with the notable exception of Walter Moody), painted in lighter to darker grey tones, according, of course, to their position, closer or farther away from the luminaries. The plots of the dark couple will be revealed by the narrator’s alter ego, Walter Moody, the witness who sees what he has to see, who hears what he has to hear in order to be able to make sense of the story and bring justice, exposing the criminals and saving the victims. It is a part he realizes that it is written for himself early enough in the narrative, anticipating with a certain resignation the narrator’s intentions:
So I am to be the unraveller, Moody thought. The detective: that is the role I am to play.
However, even though the script respects all the thriller and mystery rules, they fail to create a true suspense, for neither of the characters is truly consistent, they fail to come close enough to the reader either to scare him or to be loved by him.
The gothic aspect of the novel is an excellent example of postmodern irony: the charts put in the beginning of each one of the twelve parts, the astral signs that announce the main characters of every chapter, the mystery that surrounds the disappearance of Emery Staines, the body Walter Moody saw on the Godspeed, the strange behavior of Anna Wetherell, suddenly cured of her addiction and of her illiteracy, the unexplained death of Francis Carver in a closed police carriage and not in the least, the spiritism séance conducted by Lydia Wells and the prophecy she inadvertently delivers, all these are well-known ingredients that somehow, instead of helping to create the typical atmosphere of the gothic novels, make only a gentle parody of it, winking continually at the reader to be patient and bear with it, for that was the spirit of those obscure times.
In any case, as the rendition of a Victorian novel, the narrative ostentatiously uses many well-known tools: the summary at the beginning of each chapter (and what a delightful summary it always is: “VENUS IN PISCES In which the chaplain loses his temper, and the widow loses a fight.”), the gathering of the characters at the beginning of the story in order to be presented at the same time to the reader (the smoking room of the Crown Hotel), the precise recreation of the town (we already know about the researches of the author to reconstruct the atmosphere of the 19th-century Hokitika), the detailed (and savurous) descriptions of clothes, houses, food and drinks, etc.:
Balfour, who was always very happy to play the role of the munificent host, ordered three bowls of clear soup, a round of bread, a fat black pudding, a hard cheese, sardines in oil, hot buttered carrots, a pot of stewed oysters, and a demijohn of stout.
And yet, like for all the other parts, although the ingredients are very Victorian (including the gothic part) the narrative is absolutely not. On one hand, the narrator plays ad libitum with the temporal line, which has the appearance of a broad street that, the more it sinks into the story, the narrower it is, both in events and words. Part One, for example has more than 350 pages, whether Part twelve, which is supposed to close the circle by returning to present, has a mere 20 pages or so. But this is not all. The road to the past is not straight (no way a quiet journey down the memory lane this one, and not a circular one, either), it spirals and takes turns not only towards the present but also towards the future and finally frustrates the reader stopping shortly somewhere in the middle (a temporal middle, that is) with mere a suggestion about the fate of the protagonists. The end is open and the reader is invited to continue the spiral by himself at his convenience. On the other hand, the characters only simulate the Victorian typology (the politician, the banker, the crook, the whore, the Madam, etc.), for, as Kirsty Gunn said in maybe the best review of the book I’ve read until now, they lack consistency, they are created only to challenge the reader’s attitude in front of fiction:
“But it is also a massive shaggy dog story; a great empty bag; an enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat. For nothing in this enormous book, with its exotic and varied cast of characters whose lives all affect each other and whose fates are intricately entwined, amounts to anything like the moral and emotional weight one would expect of it. That's the point, in the end, I think, of The Luminaries. It's not about story at all. It's about what happens to us when we read novels – what we think we want from them – and from novels of this size, in particular. Is it worthwhile to spend so much time with a story that in the end isn't invested in its characters? Or is thinking about why we should care about them in the first place the really interesting thing? Making us consider so carefully whether we want a story with emotion and heart or an intellectual idea about the novel in the disguise of historical fiction… There lies the real triumph of Catton's remarkable book.
Charming and elusive, ludic and provoking, The Luminaries is a wonderful example that the art of the narrative is inexhaustible, that it can open new ways by simply walking on the old ones. But most of all, The Luminaries is one of those great books susceptible to multiple readings, by offering the reader the choice to follow the way he likes, be it the old or the new one, under any constellation his heart desires.