There are ways of being virtuous and upstanding in the s that we might not see anymore; that we might see as stiff or beside the point. Further complicating a reading of The Luminaries that treats it as a pastiche is the fact that it directly addresses a void or lack in the history of New Zealand literature, in that no major, or even particularly memorable, nineteenth century novels were set there.
In contrast to the fiction written in New Zealand from the s to the turn of the century a mostly forgettable assortment of pioneering and settlement narratives, and adventure stories of the H.
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Rider Haggard variety involving Maori tribes , The Luminaries offers an idea of what a capable and ambitious New Zealand novel of the Victorian period might have looked like. Yet most plots of sufficient length and complexity will appear implausible upon close scrutiny, and the plot of The Luminaries is implausible in a wild, highly enjoyable Victorian manner. Its many twists and turns encompass a personal vendetta, a misloaded firearm, a mysterious will, a forged signature, imprisonment, as well as all manner of corruption and deception.
For some readers, all this will be too much. But to my mind an eventful plot is better than an inert one and the plausibility that is sacrificed for the sake of entertainment is no sacrifice at all. If the plot of an acclaimed television show, such as the recently concluded Breaking Bad , were examined from its first season to its last, its developments and complications could only be seen as hopelessly implausible; it is the strength and the suspense of the storytelling across its individual episodes and the consistency with which it handles its characters and larger themes that keeps the viewer invested.
This new wave of programs has been described as television finding a form equivalent to that of the novel, and it could be argued that, by exploring how complex characters develop and come to be defined through extraordinary circumstances and external problems, rather than focusing on the internal and the everyday, they have more of an affinity the great novelists of the nineteenth century than the modernist writers of the twentieth. In addition to its adherence to a nineteenth century style, the composition of The Luminaries has been guided by two connected structural restrictions that are worth reflecting on.
First, the astrological calendar for the months in that the novel covers has been used to determine the nature of the characters, their connections with one another, and the development of the plot. Second, the novel has twelve parts, and each part is exactly half as long as the one that precedes it.
The first is pages in length, the final part is barely a page. These elements have passed without much comment in many reviews. I will admit that I do not understand the full extent to which these patterns guide the development of The Luminaries , despite the lists and charts provided throughout, and that my first inclination was to dismiss them as the kind of structural conceit that may drive and delight an author but has relatively little impact on a reader.
However, as I was drawn deeper I discovered that what I had thought to be peripheral is, in fact, central to the novel.
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Each of the major characters is aligned with an astrological concept, either the signs of the Zodiac Stellar or one of the seven heavenly bodies known to the ancients Planetary ; all are set in symmetry with the Earth Terra Firma. The reader begins the novel aligned with one of the Planetary characters, the aforementioned Walter Moody, but the focus quickly shifts when Moody meets and allies himself with the assembled Stellar characters: the twelve men who have united to discuss the mysterious circumstances that have befallen the town.
Furthermore, each has played an unintentional role in setting it in motion. As above, so below; as below, so above. It is customary in a murder mystery to frame the detective as an outsider often a man or woman alone , who is looking in on some central human drama that has been played out before his or her arrival.
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The protagonist then works back through the tangled causal chain of motive, method and opportunity to arrive at the first cause: the point at which the movement towards death began. All twelve of the Stellar characters are very much men alone. Their families are either absent, estranged, distant or dead. The role of detective is diffused between them and, under the inverted stars of the Southern hemisphere, we are presented with an inversion of a conventional mystery story, one in which the investigators outnumber the suspects.
In a colonial gold rush town, there is no shortage of lonely, peripheral outsiders. As the novel progresses and contracts, the influence of the Stellar characters wanes and the Planetary characters who are more strongly connected to the action come into focus. It is, without question, a creative writing exercise. It seems short-sighted to dismiss this aspect out of hand, especially when it yields such impressive results. Taurus is represented - poorly - by the aloof banker Charlie Frost.
Gemini the Twins , sharp and cutting, a sign of the mind, of the air. Impulsive and restless Gemini! This book has a marked Gemini influence in its clever narrative voice, one often sidelined by description and dialogue yet still distinct, full of wit and sly innuendo. Gemini's influence is even stronger when considering the almost dizzying ingenuity of the book's look-at-me structure and its increasingly cheeky chapter introductions.
Gemini is represented by Benjamin Lowenthal, a Jewish newspaper editor and a character in need of richer development. Cancer the Crab moons about in its shell, moody and self-absorbed, yet caring and loyal to the end. Complicated, sensitive Cancer! The Crab has little to do with The Luminaries, except when looking at the novel in general terms. A strong and thick hardcover book, a complicated structure, a soft heart lurking within. Cancer is well-represented by the hotelier Edgar Clinch.
Leo the Lion sits back, the very image of self-satisfaction, a magnet to lesser men, a sun that would have the whole universe revolve around it.
Confident and surprisingly generous Leo! The heavy-lidded sensuality of the Lion holds court throughout The Luminaries, its beautiful imagery and its rich descriptive prowess openly displayed; well-hung Leo also clearly influenced this book's impressive length. Leo is represented by Dick lol Mannering, a goldfields magnate. Virgo the Virgin is the sign of this reviewer.
It is the most wonderful sign imaginable: critical yet fair, judgmental but only in the most loving of ways, altruistic, well-read, self-sacrificing, practically perfect in every way, the Mary Poppins of the Zodiac. All must bow to the wonder of Virgo! The Virgin is terribly represented by Quee Long, who is about the opposite of any decent Virgo.
For shame, Eleanor Catton, you have betrayed the Zodiac with your libelous portrait of a so-called Virgo! Okay here's the one thing that bothered me about The Luminaries: the way it treated its Asian characters. Perhaps because I'm a hyper-critical half-breed who favors his Asian side, I'm always on the look-out for things to irritate me in the way that Asians are represented.
Now I don't think that Catton has an issue with Asians, but it does chafe on a personal level how little they are respected in this novel. I understand the lack of respect coming from other characters, given the time and place. But I resented their actual parts and paths in the narrative - and that's all Eleanor Catton.
One Asian is presented as single-minded in the most simple and greedy way possible; another is an opium addict and merchant whose tragic life and grand quest for revenge end in a limp little fizzle, off of the page. I raged a bit at the injustice of it all.
Libra the Scales is a sign of beauty, and much like Beauty itself, displays both grace and superficiality, charisma and vanity. Lovely, indecisive Libra!
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Libra's scales are seldom in balance; this sign seeks to make things equal and often fails. And so it is with the author of The Luminaries, a Libra on the cusp of Virgo. Her favorites among the novel's astrological characters are dynamic and richly developed; those less-favored are given mere cameo appearances.
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But don't look for fairness from a Libra - look for beauty! And there is much beauty within the pages of The Luminaries. Exquisite prose, gorgeous imagery, lovely moments within its lovely love story; the beautiful mind of its author, yearning to be recognized for its brilliance - and rewarded by the Man Booker Prize.
Libra is represented - perfectly - by Harald Nilssen, a commission merchant. Scorpio is the Scorpion , and the Eagle as well. It soars above the earth and lives in its holes. This strange sign is the Investigator of the Zodiac and is also its greatest conundrum - secretive to its core, yet suspicious of secrets in others; dark and unyielding; often cold yet deeply sexual. Mysterious, obsessive Scorpio!
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The Luminaries is intimately connected to the Scorpion, in its basic nature as a Mystery Novel and in its refusal to solve certain mysteries, to keep them shrouded in ambiguity. The Eagle dislikes having to explain itself. Scorpio is represented by Joseph Pritchard, a chemist and a perfectly executed character who is left almost entirely off of the page.
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