Article The Future

The Luminaries: a book about the past, present and the future

“I am interested in those truths that are yet unknown, it is only so that they might in time, be made known―or to put it more plainly, so that in time I might come to know them.” ― Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton: the brilliant author

Eleanor was born in the year 1985, in Canada, and at the age of six, went to New Zealand, her father’s home country. She spent many years studying in New Zealand. She has an exemplary background in education in Creative Writing studies: first from New Zealand itself, where she completed her Masters in Creative Writing at The International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington; after which she obtained a fellowship from the very prestigious IOWA writers’ workshop. Her first published book was called The Rehearsal.

The Luminaries was her second novel. This novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the year 2013. Eleanor became the youngest author ever, at the age of 28, to win the Man Booker Prize in 2013. The book with its creative meanderings in the Goldfields of Southern New Zealand also made her at the age of 27, the youngest author to have ever been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She has won many other awards. The research that went behind putting the novel together is also an incredible story to ponder over. Here is more about the award winning book.

The Luminaries: A Detailed Analysis and Review

The Luminaries is a fascinating tale of intrigue, adventure, suspense, and mystery. The story is set in 1866, in Southern New Zealand, in a town called Hokitika, where the excavation of gold brings fortunes to men as diggers and owners, who either work in groups, or by themselves. Not only of goldfields, ships, and people; the Luminaries is also a story of strange love—between a woman of the street, a woman misled, and the story of a young aspiring man—whose destinies are intertwined. This is the story of strange fortuitous alliances, deceit, lies, uncovering and honoring. This is the story of revenge, betrayals, winnings, claims, and deeds—and more. Eleanor Catton forges into the narrative her keen perception and descriptions of human foibles and strengths.

The Future aligning with destinies

Characters are tied to events, and the unwrapping of events is beautifully brought forth in the novel—the past flashes in the present—the present gives rise to the future—a future, which, as the overall astrological entity in the narrative stresses upon—is one tethered to destiny.

Set in 1866, the language too, astounds in its correctness and aptness. Characterization in this novel is remarkable: dialogues convey a lot about the characters; if there is a whimsical or fantasizing personality, their dialogues too, convey this; if it is a cryptic person, then their conversations are short and terse. The author portrays rightly, not just the physical features of the character with vividness, but with alacrity, also conjures their emotional patterns and behavioral tendencies onto a physical plane. Delineating the personality of each character, and also focusing upon what encourages particular behaviour on their part, is an intriguing facet of the book. Every person in the story has a past, and reasoning attached to their thoughts and actions—and it has been sufficiently expressed.

Summarizing, the men in action

Twelve men are holding a clandestine meeting in the smoking-room of the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, and in their midst, arrives a stranger—Mr. Walter Moody—a sharp and witty man, with a background in law—a man running away from his past and looking to make his fortune, hunting gold like almost everyone else in Hokitika. Moody is trespassing, although unintentionally, yet this trespass, only proves to be a boon for many of those in the room that night.

Thomas Balfour, a shipping agent, one of the twelve attendees strikes a conversation with Moody and thus begins an unraveling of stories. As their acquaintance deepens, Moody is pulled into their past and the reason for the secret gathering is revealed to him.

A hermit by the name of Crosbie Wells has been found dead, and gold has been found buried on his estate; a woman of the street, Anna Wetherell, is found in an inebriated condition and is detained at the local gaol for attempting to end her own life; Emery Staines, a young wealthy man, has disappeared. Each of the twelve men in the smoking-room of the Crown Hotel has a direct or indirect link to the chain of events that have recently occurred. Moody too is somehow circuitously associated with the sequence. He had recently been on the Godspeed, the barque, captained by a man called Francis Carver, a possible culprit responsible for many of the crimes committed.

Is Carver truly the criminal mind behind the many sketched machinations? Why did the hermit die? Why was the wealthiest man of Hokitika missing? Who is the real owner of the wealth found in the Hermit’s house? Questions arise, and the meeting solves little. A lot more ensues, additional stories emerge and the Hokitika gold story draws the reader into the mysteries of the gold town and much is further on gleaned.

The influence of Astrology

Elements of Astrology pervade the story. As is the pattern of the stars and the planets in the sky, so are the conditions on earth, and so is the frame upon which the many connected episodes in the novel emanate. An understanding of the implications of some of the outlined astrological terms; help in ascertaining the nature of why certain things happen the way they do, during a particular time period. Some people believe in astrology, and then some people do not believe in astrology. The influence is, nevertheless, charted in the book, and the meaning of planets aligning with zodiac signs, and the resulting sense lends the narrative secrecy. The astrological frame of reference also, in fact, illuminates the background of the story and allows the reader to enjoy furthermore, the running scenes in the foreground. Situations are prefixed and allotted to the chapters as per the positions altered and sequenced by the divination of the stars, the planets, the sun and the moon.

Twelve narrowing chapters: in <strong>connexion, as are the zodiacs</strong>: The past and present occupied much of the narrative in the novel. The reader may for a moment want to delve into the brightly lit futures of the many significant faces, shining in the outpouring of gold dust, in its benefits and tricks, and would like to know more of the future of some of the characters. However, their past is so perplexed that the future for them could now only be mellowed.

Unexpectedly, the story comes to its beginning, towards the end. Fiction flows smoothly when there is—a beginning, middle and an end. It is when fiction decides not to follow convention; concludes with the beginning, and plucks out the past and stashes it with the present, and then knots it in the future, one has a novel like The Luminaries. There is elegance on every page. Following are the short summaries of the twelve chapters.

I. Sphere within a Sphere: It is the first and the longest chapter in the book. Sphere within a sphere, a term, so implicit of the concerns’ of everyday living—which most individuals would find themselves occupying, in their minds—their past, how it affects their present or how it does not; the inner sphere is usually discreet and it is detailed, until it is pried upon, and eventually loses its discretion. The first chapter contains ingredients of this prying, in addition to escape, bewilderment, and shenanigans. Many important characters flourish from oblivion into the light in the first chapter.

Walter Moody and Thomas Balfour are the initiators of the process of conversations that eventually lift a significant obscurity hanging upon Hokitika. An inanimate object, The Godspeed, a large barque, is an element of surprise in the otherwise ordinary setting of the Crown Hotel. Even phantoms are mentioned. Walter Moody’s past also extends the story, further—from the Goldfields of California to those of New Zealand.

Thomas Balfour, his friends and acquaintances; Harald Nilssen at Nilssen & Co.; Joseph Pritchard, a chemist; Edgar Clinch, a Hotelier; Dick Mannering, a magnate; Benjamin Lowenthal, a newspaperman; Aubert Gascoigne, a clerk; Sook Yongsheng, a hatter, and Quee Long, a goldsmith—the two Chinamen; Te Rau Tauwhare, a Maori; Cowell Delvin, the resident chaplain of the Goal house; and Robert Frost, a clergyman, are the twelve important attendees in the secret rendezvous at the Crown Hotel.

Ordinary characters are silhouetted into relevant people in the first chapter, people who propel the story on its course, just as the vessels of passage across seas, do too. There are stories within stories; each piece unraveling itself—and characters moving into the limelight. There is a sphere of memories, in the contour of narratives—and then there is the present bursting in spurts, holding the areas of the past together—the pieces untangle in succession, as one character upon another, enters the scene. As a reader finds oneself intrigued by a present character, another one makes an appearance. One may feel disappointment in losing the previous character, but it’s an exquisite delayering in progress, and the reader becomes equally interested in the next.

George Shepard, the Gaol Keeper of Hokitika; and Alistair Lauderback, a politician, are conspicuous by their absence, in this particular meeting. Some of their motives are unknown at this point. Towards the end of this very long chapter, the thirteen people come to a conclusion. On the aside, the barque named Godspeed, is unable to weather the calamitous waters and is shattered to pieces, close to shore. As a result of this, revelations follow in the succeeding chapters.

II. Auguries: In the second chapter, situations change after the Crown Hotel meeting; more secrets are unearthed, some secrets are forcibly gathered, causing equations to change, and some secrets are made public; confrontations are created, unintentional betrayals are engendered. Meetings are held, and a woman, Lydia Wells from Dunedin, widow of the dead hermit, who had earlier arrived in Hokitika and had staked claim to the treasures found, starts a business of realms in town and holds a seance. Preindications collide with punctured pasts and family secrets are revealed in letters.

III. The House of Self-Undoing: In the third chapter, Walter Moody, the stranger in town, meets a vengeful Chinaman and shares information vital to a villain’s location and chooses to help someone who was once wronged. A deed is signed, and Anna finds a gift intended for her. The resident Chaplain of the Hokitika Gaol has something to do with the deed and its deliverance. A Chinaman purchases a pistol. A reverend and a widow confront each other. Anna, tries to find a solicitor, and finally leaves Lydia Well, a woman from her past and her present, for good. A Maori finds a missing man. Two estranged lovers, finally meet.

IV. Paenga-wha-wha: From this chapter onwards, one goes back to the beginning of story, when several fated meetings occur. Albatrosses are discussed. The present rises back again. A marriage takes place. A courthouse drama ensues and a couple confesses, and a verdict is given. Back in the past again, Anna meets an important character in the story; charts are drawn and discoveries are made. The present, too then, turns into a mystery.

V. Weight and Lucre: Gold dust that was hidden and thought to be intact is lost, and the chapter reveals more about the past of the hermit. In the past again, a husband and a wife quarrel and a party is organized to cover things up. Importantly, in this chapter, a wicked scheme comes to fruition, almost.

VI. The Widow and the Weeds: A murdered man and a missing man meet in this chapter. A mutual acquaintance is discussed and a favour is asked for and granted. A scarred man arrives in Hokitika, along with a woman of the street. Two important acquaintances meet, and a third party feels possessive. A scarred man looks for revenge. A conspirator’s stolen goods are lost for good. More elaboration of the past of certain principle individuals is elucidated in this chapter.

VII. Domicile: As this chapter progresses, a young man and a magnate speak about wealth and secrets; a young boy speaks of the difference between love that is given and love that is received. A China man makes his residence in Kaniere Chinatown, and is observed by someone who will have a role to play in his destiny. A woman of the street narrates tales of her escape and divulges a secret to someone she trusts. This was a time when a friend could have saved a friend’s life, but instead, a friend’s silence led to a friend’s death.

VIII. The Truth About Aurora: In this chapter, some truths are not laid bare. A duffer claim, a land that yields no gold is producing gold, and this truth does not come out due to personal vendettas. Letters are written, and a young woman steels herself from what is to come.

IX. Mutable Earth: This chapter too, unearths some facts. In Arahura Valley, stolen gold is buried; gold that came from fabric and finds sanctuary in soil.

X. Matters of Succession: Some more mysteries are solved, in this chapter. A villain behaves as he pleases, yet trusts are not broken, and an important deed is half-signed.

XI. Orion Sets When Scorpio Rises: This chapter almost touches upon denouement. A young man and a young woman think about each other, and their actions follow suit.

XII. The Old Moon in the Young Moon’s Arms: Several events happen in one night—episodes that are interconnected and fateful, and most of the earlier secrets of the missing man, the dead man, and the woman of the street, find outlets.

Summarizing, women with differences and similarities

Lydia Wells, Crosbie Wells’ widow, is a character with shades; she is a fortune teller, a conspirator, a woman of many tricks; the storyline does not in the beginning confirm the many inflections in her personality, however, her ability to deal with tragic situations with relative hardness and repose, is hint enough, and gradually through the chapters does one realize, her part in concoctions. What seems elegance and innocence reveals itself as a contrivance.

On the contrary, Anna Wetherell, is depicted as a woman tainted and marked. However, as the story progresses, this point of view of a reader could change—her history comes forth—what seems in the present, addiction and allure, was once naivety. Edgar Clinch, Dick Mannering, Emery Staines, Ah Sook, Quee Long are all consociated with Anna. There is, however, one of these men, who Anna falls in love with.

Tapering into oblivion

Leaving the men and women behind, like a silver stream running from the mountains, passing through crevices, cracks, and paths, downward, the story, almost in the end tapers into a narrow valley, and then eases out of sight. So enamored does one become with these characters that the reader is most likely going to miss them, turning the last page, imagining the Southern New Zealand Goldfields and its waters rushing into oblivion, almost leaving a temporary void behind.

In the formation of stars and planets are written incandescent or contained destinies and perfecting such destinies to their final destinations are people; people with pasts, presents and futures. It is in the history of Hokitika, and in its astrological perambulations and thereby marked settling co-ordinates, that the dark shrouds first, deepen, and then are gradually lifted.

Unanswered and hidden

As one moves away from Hokitika and its stories of gold and fortune hunters, some incidents are left unattended. Something a reader can unpick for themselves or leave as is: a death seems like a case of just deserts, however, the who and how, is thrown a veil upon; phantoms don’t find names and forms; fortune tellers cannot predict the fates of those they accomplice with and do not find a mold of deserved karmic apogee; a plan of justified revenge goes unfulfilled; a woman’s real intentions remain hidden; and unresolved familial meetings find no space on pages. The dwindling of voices allows this ‘leaving out’, and the resolutions that have escaped can be permitted to remain where they are, and an opaque enshrouding can obscure further, the mysteries that go unresolved. It is in the unveiled knowledge and in this unknown that The Luminaries stamps its masterful artwork of creative storytelling.

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Picture Credit: Photo of the Book ‘The Luminaries’ in a bookstore, taken by Trisha Bhattacharya

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