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The Luminaries
by Eleanor Catton

Published: 2014-10-07
Paperback : 864 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 2 of 2 members
The bestselling, Man Booker Prize-winning novel hailed as "a true achievement. Catton has built a lively parody of a 19th-century novel, and in so doing created a novel for the 21st, something utterly new. The pages fly."--New York Times Book Review

It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to ...
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Introduction

The bestselling, Man Booker Prize-winning novel hailed as "a true achievement. Catton has built a lively parody of a 19th-century novel, and in so doing created a novel for the 21st, something utterly new. The pages fly."--New York Times Book Review

It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to stake his claim in New Zealand's booming gold rush. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of 12 local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: a wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous cache of gold has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky.

Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bust, THE LUMINARIES is at once a fiendishly clever ghost story, a gripping page-turner, and a thrilling novelistic achievement. It richly confirms that Eleanor Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international literary firmament.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

Excerpt

MERCURY IN SAGITTARIUS

In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika; a secret council is disturbed; Walter Moody conceals his most recent memory; and Thomas Balfour begins to tell a story.

The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportment and dress – frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill – they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway – deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.

Such was the perception of Mr. Walter Moody, from where he stood in the doorway with his hand upon the frame. He was innocent of having disturbed any kind of private conference, for the speakers had ceased when they heard his tread in the passage; by the time he opened the door, each of the twelve men had resumed his occupation (rather haphazardly, on the part of the billiard players, for they had forgotten their places) with such a careful show of absorption that no one even glanced up when he stepped into the room.

The strictness and uniformity with which the men ignored him might have aroused Mr. Moody’s interest, had he been himself in body and temperament. As it was, he was queasy and disturbed. He had known the voyage to West Canterbury would be fatal at worst, an endless rolling trough of white water and spume that ended on the shattered graveyard of the Hokitika bar, but he had not been prepared for the particular horrors of the journey, of which he was still incapable of speaking, even to himself. Moody was by nature impatient of any deficiencies in his own person – fear and illness both turned him inward – and it was for this reason that he very uncharacteristically failed to assess the tenor of the room he had just entered.

Moody’s natural expression was one of readiness and attention. His grey eyes were large and unblinking, and his supple, boyish mouth was usually poised in an expression of polite concern. His hair inclined to a tight curl; it had fallen in ringlets to his shoulders in his youth, but now he wore it close against his skull, parted on the side and combed flat with a sweet-smelling pomade that darkened its golden hue to an oily brown. His brow and cheeks were square, his nose straight, and his complexion smooth. He was not quite eight-and-twenty, still swift and exact in his motions, and possessed of the kind of roguish, unsullied vigour that conveys neither gullibility nor guile. He presented himself in the manner of a discreet and quick-minded butler, and as a consequence was often drawn into the confidence of the least voluble of men, or invited to broker relations between people he had only lately met. He had, in short, an appearance that betrayed very little about his own character, and an appearance that others were immediately inclined to trust.

Moody was not unaware of the advantage his inscrutable grace afforded him. Like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior. He had passed a great many hours in the alcove of his private dressing room, where the mirror tripled his image into profile, half-profile, and square: Van Dyck’s Charles, though a good deal more striking. It was a private practice, and one he would likely have denied – for how roundly self-examination is condemned, by the moral prophets of our age! As if the self had no relation to the self, and one only looked in mirrors to have one’s arrogance confirmed; as if the act of self-regarding was not as subtle, fraught and ever-changing as any bond between twin souls. In his fascination Moody sought less to praise his own beauty than to master it. Certainly whenever he caught his own reflection, in a window box, or in a pane of glass after nightfall, he felt a thrill of satisfaction – but as an engineer might feel, chancing upon a mechanism of his own devising and finding it splendid, flashing, properly oiled and performing exactly as he had predicted it should.

He could see his own self now, poised in the doorway of the smoking room, and he knew that the figure he cut was one of perfect composure. He was near trembling with fatigue; he was carrying a leaden weight of terror in his gut; he felt shadowed, even dogged; he was filled with dread. He surveyed the room with an air of polite detachment and respect. It had the appearance of a place rebuilt from memory after a great passage of time, when much has been forgotten (andirons, drapes, a proper mantel to surround the hearth) but small details persist: a picture of the late Prince Consort, for example, cut from a magazine and affixed with shoe tacks to the wall that faced the yard; the seam down the middle of the billiard table, which had been sawn in two on the Sydney docks to better survive the crossing; the stack of old broadsheets upon the secretary, the pages thinned and blurry from the touch of many hands. The view through the two small windows that flanked the hearth was over the hotel’s rear yard, a marshy allotment littered with crates and rusting drums, separated from the neighbouring plots only by patches of scrub and low fern, and, to the north, by a row of laying hutches, the doors of which were chained against thieves. Beyond this vague periphery, one could see sagging laundry lines running back and forth behind the houses one block to the east, latticed stacks of raw timber, pigpens, piles of scrap and sheet iron, broken cradles and flumes – everything abandoned, or in some relative state of disrepair. The clock had struck that late hour of twilight when all colours seem suddenly to lose their richness, and it was raining hard; through the cockled glass the yard was bleached and fading. Inside, the spirit lamps had not yet succeeded the sea-coloured light of the dying day, and seemed by virtue of their paleness to accent the general cheerlessness of the room’s decor.

For a man accustomed to his club in Edinburgh, where all was lit in hues of red and gold, and the studded couches gleamed with a fatness that reflected the girth of the gentlemen upon them; where, upon entering, one was given a soft jacket that smelled pleasantly of anise, or of peppermint, and thereafter the merest twitch of one’s finger towards the bell-rope was enough to summon a bottle of claret on a silver tray, the prospect was a crude one. But Moody was not a man for whom offending standards were cause enough to sulk: the rough simplicity of the place only made him draw back internally, as a rich man will step swiftly to the side, and turn glassy, when confronted with a beggar in the street. The mild look upon his face did not waver as he cast his gaze about, but inwardly, each new detail – the mound of dirty wax beneath this candle, the rime of dust around that glass – caused him to retreat still further into himself, and steel his body all the more rigidly against the scene.

This recoil, though unconsciously performed, owed less to the common prejudices of high fortune – in fact Moody was only modestly rich, and often gave coins to paupers, though (it must be owned) never without a small rush of pleasure for his own largesse – than to the personal disequilibrium over which the man was currently, and invisibly, struggling to prevail. This was a gold town, after all, newbuilt between jungle and surf at the southernmost edge of the civilised world, and he had not expected luxury.

The truth was that not six hours ago, aboard the barque that had conveyed him from Port Chalmers to the wild shard of the Coast, Moody had witnessed an event so extraordinary and affecting that it called all other realities into doubt. The scene was still with him – as if a door had chinked open, in the corner of his mind, to show a band of greying light, and he could not now wish the darkness back again. It was costing him a great deal of effort to keep that door from opening further. In this fragile condition, any unorthodoxy or inconvenience was personally affronting. He felt as if the whole dismal scene before him was an aggregate echo of the trials he had so lately sustained, and he recoiled from it in order to prevent his own mind from following this connexion, and returning to the past. Disdain was useful. It gave him a fixed sense of proportion, a rightfulness to which he could appeal, and feel secure.

He called the room luckless, and meagre, and dreary – and with his inner mind thus fortified against the furnishings, he turned to the twelve inhabitants. An inverted pantheon, he thought, and again felt a little steadier, for having indulged the conceit. The men were bronzed and weathered in the manner of all frontiersmen, their lips chapped white, their carriage expressive of privation and loss. Two of their number were Chinese, dressed identically in cloth shoes and grey cotton shifts; behind them stood a Maori native, his face tattooed in whorls of greenish-blue. Of the others, Moody could not guess the origin. He did not yet understand how the diggings could age a man in a matter of months; casting his gaze around the room, he reckoned himself the youngest man in attendance, when in fact several were his juniors and his peers. The glow of youth was quite washed from them. They would be crabbed forever, restless, snatching, grey in body, coughing dust into the brown lines of their palms. Moody thought them coarse, even quaint; he thought them men of little influence; he did not wonder why they were so silent. He wanted a brandy, and a place to sit and close his eyes. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. Do you believe in astrology? Do you attribute any part of your personality to your star sign? To what extent do you think the characters in The Luminaries are bound to their astrological signs?

2. In a similar vein, Eleanor Catton has given each of the twelve men the personality stereotypical to an astrological sign. Does this mean all their actions are pre-determined? And when taking into account the fact that this is a story filled with coincidences, unpredictability, and mistaken assumptions, what do you think Catton is saying about fate vs. coincidence? Does she give more clout to one concept than to the other?

3. Following the Zodiac as a guiding structure, The Luminaries is a stunning feat of construction. Some have argued that, in novels especially, high structural complexity can come at the expense of plot. In what ways does The Luminaries defy this theory?

4. Throughout the book, people are either hurting Anna or helping her. What is it about her that makes her a litmus test for other characters' morality?

5. This book is filled with stories within stories. The reader is often told multiple versions of events. For example, at the beginning of the book, do the twelve men at the secret meeting tell Walter Moody the whole truth? If not, what are their reasons for being less than truthful? Are there other times when you found yourself doubting the validity of a character's assertions?

6. Do you feel that the narrator was completely trustworthy? Like her Victorian predecessors, Catton doesn't hesitate to intersperse the narrative with moral judgments of her characters—frequently, her characters judge one another. Sometimes, the narrator "breaks the fourth wall" by addressing the audience directly. Do these techniques make the narrator more reliable than one who "feigns" neutrality? Is there ever such a thing as a narrator who is completely objective?

7. Some have interpreted The Luminaries as a philosophical meditation on time, pointing to the conflation of present and past throughout the story. Do you agree? What do you think The Luminaries is saying about time?

8. The Luminaries is set in a New Zealand that is rapidly changing as a result of the gold rush. Banking has become all-important, and the outside world is exerting its growing influence, resulting in the confluence of "the savage and civil, the old world and the new." Do any of the concerns of the people in this place and time still resonate today? Are there ways in which this story could be universal?

9. Eleanor Catton was born in Canada, lives in New Zealand, studied in the United States, and travels regularly. How do you think that her experiences as an international citizen have shaped her prose? Are there certain limitations or freedoms that Catton's nationality have on her legacy as a writer?

10. Some media outlets have asserted that The Luminaries is dominated by male characters and brings to life a male-dominated world with this story. Do you agree? If Catton were a man, do you think this issue would have surfaced? Should female writers have to take their own gender into account when writing?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "This is not an easy book to read, but boy, is it worth the effort!"by thewanderingjew (see profile) 06/08/15

When I turned the last page of the book, my first reaction was “whew’! It took me a long time to read this book. There were so many characters, and although the author carefully develope... (read more)

 
by MarthaO (see profile) 01/20/15

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