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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Summer read with Ferris.
  • Eleanor Catton, Canadian born, grew up in New Zealand where she currently resides.
  • First Published in Great Britain in August 2013, then in USA October 2013
  • The Luminaries Awards: 2013 Booker Prize
Setting: 1866, Hokitika, New Zealand, Gold Rush era

Plot:  Walter Moody, like many other men, has come to Hokitika to make his fortune by mining gold. Upon settling in the ramshackle Crown Hotel, he inadvertently finds himself in the smoking room with twelve mysterious men who have secretly convened to discuss private matters. Moody was not expected, nor was he meant to be there.

Structure: This is told as an astrological fable in traditional Victorian style.
                   Each of the twelve men in the room are associated with a zodiac sign. The chapters
                   are named after the zodiac sign associated with the main character(s) covered in that

The 12 Men & their designated astral signs.
Twelve men have gathered in the Crown Hotel for a secret conference. Their purpose is to discuss recent incidents relating to a local murder and the disappearance of a very wealthy man in their mining town, Hokitika. Each man's story will illuminate one part of the mystery. They hope that by sharing their individual stories they will figure out who murdered Crosbie Stills, and why Emery Staines vanished (who is presumed to be murdered), and how the other events are connected.  This meeting is central to the novel's plot.
  1. Te Rau Tauwhare: greenstone hunter, Aries, Maori descent
  2. Charlie Frost: banker, Taurus,
  3. Benjamin Lowenthal:  newspaperman, Gemini
  4. Edgar Clinch: hotelier, Cancer 
  5. Dick Mannering: goldfields magnate & owner of elicit prostitution ring, Leo 
  6. Quee Long: goldsmith, Virgo 
  7. Harald Nilssen: commission's merchant, Libra 
  8. Joseph Pritchard: chemist, Scorpio 
  9. Thomas Balfour: shipping agent, Sagittarius
  10. Aubert Gascoigne: justice's clerk, Capricorn 
  11. Sook Yongsheng: hatter, Aquarius
  12. Cowell Devlin: chaplain, Pisces 
Other Characters and their planetary bodies:
  1. Walter Moody - Mecury - Englishman of wealth, abandoned by father, plans to mine gold
  2. Lydia (Wells) Carver née Greenway - Venus - ran a salon & whorehouse, and is involved with  Francis Carver in illegal business.
  3. Francis Carver - Mars- Former convict; involved in illegal business ventures with Lydia Wells Carver
  4. Alistair Lauderback - Jupiter- politician and step-brother to Crosbie Wells
  5. George Shepard - Saturn - Governor of Hokitka and Gaoler
  6. Anna Wetherell - The Sun and The Moon - Hokitika prostitute
  7. Emery Staines - The Moon and The Sun - lost soul at heart of story
  8. Crosbie Wells - Earth  - deceased (murdered) - central to stories development
Quotes and Notes
Crosbie Wells is designated as earth because he is the central point from which all related proceedings occur. Despite the complicated movements of the constellations, they are aligned with, and revolve around this central point: his death. He is the ground to their sky.

p. 4     "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."  An example of the self-centered nature most of the characters possess. A necessary trait for those living a hard life in an undeveloped land in hopes of making their fortunes, or serving out their indenture-ship.

p. 4    Moody: "He presented himself in the manner of a discreet and quick-minded butler;"

p. 5     Moody: "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."

     The concept of twin souls:
  • refers to the inner and outer self: the public and private self which Moody is markedly aware (see pg. 21 below)
  • self examination
  • indirectly refers to the twin soul phenomena - two connected souls that feed off of one another, as with Anna and Crosbie
p. 10    Thomas Balfour: "His prosperity sat easily with him, Moody thought, recognizing in the man that relaxed sense of entitlement that comes when a lifelong optimism has been ratified by success."

p. 11    Walter Moody: "...his education had made him insular, for it had taught him that the proper way to understand any social system was to view it from above."

p. 11   Regarding Moody:  "He regarded Moody's stiffness as if it were a fashionable collar, made in some aristocratic style, that was unbearably confining to the wearer - he saw all conventions of polite society in this way, as useless ornamentations - and it amused him, that the man's refinement caused him to be so ill at ease."

p. 21    Moody: "By the time the maid appeared he had arranged his face into its habitual expression of benign indifference, and was examining the dovetailed join at the corner of the front desk." Hilarious and easy to picture. How often are we guilty of this ourselves?

p. 40    Gascoigne: "He spoke as a disappointed man, for whom perfection existed only as something remembered - and regretted, because it was lost."

p. 42     "...there was nothing nicer than a four part harmony ----the voices like threads in a piece of silk."  Musical connection...lovely.

p. 47    "Each item of business was described in the expansive, flourishing script that Balfour associated, in his mind, with a man who could afford to waste his ink on curlicues."

p. 54    "No one can protect a soul against themselves-against their own hand." So true.

p. 69     twinkle - "A piece of glass, or a jewel, or a scrap of a mirror that is inserted into the end of a cigar." A person smokes his cigar with a twinkle inserted so others cannot see it, but you can see things, as in an opponents cards, for gambling - cheating.  The author uses this concept various ways throughout the novel, but with the same meaning - to cheat.

p. 79    "Such a tonic for the spirit is the promise of revenge."

p. 87    Devlin Cowell: "...he was given to bouts of very purposeful ignorance..." Catton covers ironical forms of human nature superbly.

p. 98    Te Rau Tauwhare:  "He possessed a deeply private arrogance, a bedrock of self-certainty...he simply knew that he was better than most other men." Although this made him anxious because, "He knew that any self-reflexive certainty was the hallmark of shallowness, and that valuation was no index of true worth - and yet he could not shake his certainty about himself. This worried him. He worried that he was only an ornament, a shell without meat, a hollow clam..." So he "apprenticed himself to the spiritual teach himself to doubt himself...but a man cannot master his will without the expression of it."

Catton, at such a young age (in her late twenties when this was published) seems to have an surpring grasp on human nature. Phenomenal.

p. 99 & 104    pounamu=the green stone Te Rau Tauwhare hunted for and expertly carved, yet (p. 104) would never sell his carvings or the stone itself because, "One could not put a price upon a treasure, just as one could not purchase mana, and one could not make a bargain with a god.

Te Rau did not see gold as a treasure, pounamu was the true treasure. "Gold was like all capital in that it had no memory..." I wonder if Catton is referring to the irony by which we designate value. Why is gold chosen as the most valuable, and why not this rare green stone, or amethyst for that matter.

p. 109   Frost: "The banker spoke with the controlled alarm of a bureaucrat who is requested to explain some mundane feature of the bureaucracy of which he is a functioning part: controlled, because an official is always comforted by proof of his own expertise, and alarmed, because the necessity for explanation seemed, in some obscure way to undermine the system which had afforded him that expertise in the first place." What a great satiric statement!

p. 114   "Balfour enjoyed the fierce indifference of a storm." I love that statement, as well as the one that follows:  "He liked lonely places, because he never really felt alone." I fully relate to these two thoughts.
p.  118   Nilssen:  "He derived an especial pleasure from argument, so long as it was of the preposterous, hypothetical variety, and so loved to fashion absurd theories of abstraction from the small but dedicated circle of his own tastes." Astute observation.

p. 120   Joseph Pritchard: "He formed convictions as other men formed dependencies - a belief for him was as a thirst - and he fed his own convictions with all the erotic fervor of the willingly confirmed. This rapture extend to his self-regard. Whenever the subterranean waters of his mind were disturbed, he plunged inward and struggled downward - kicking strongly, purposefully, as if he wished to touch the mineral depths of his own dark fantasies; as if he wished to drown." One can see why Catton won the Booker Prize. Her insights and phrasing is amazing. I wish it stayed throughout the entire novel.

p. 127   "When a fellow has to cover his prints....that's when he has to start making provisions, sacrifices. Do you see? A man on the inside has to contend with the pawns - with all the pieces of the system. But a man on the outside can deal with the Devil direct."

p. 132   Mrs. George - I found it curious that Mrs. George, the wife of the Governor of Hokitika who is responsible for the Gaol (jail), did not receive an astral or planetary designation of any kind. She played such an important role in Ah Sook's life and ultimately Francis Carver's. She was quietly lethal despite, or because of, her emotionally abusive  husband whose brother was also abusive, and was her previous husband.  The Gaoler underestimated her capabilities. To others, Mr. George included, this was how she appeared (timid & anxious):

"Mrs. George wore the bewildered, panicked aspect of a tortured animal, who sees a cage where there is none, and cowers at every sudden thing."

Yet, she was not all that she appeared to be. Mrs. George covered for Ah Sook in a court of law, testifying that he did not kill her husband, that he had committed suicide (Ah Sook did murder him).  She also took Ah Sook in as a fugitive in her husband's home, dressed Ah Sook to disguise his identity from her husband and townspeople, and possibly had a hand in Carver's death. Anyways, who did kill Carver?

p. 141  Self-doubt - the author used this motif throughout a large portion of the novel. As the twelve men suspicions grew, so did their self-doubt. They began to question their own innocence for crimes they did not commit.

"He was not guilty - he had done no wrong - a yet he felt guilty; he felt implicated, as though he had performed a terrible misdeed while sleeping, and had woken to find his bolster smeared with blood."

Ah, the human psyche, how it can work against us. Equally so, man can judge himself by his intended thoughts, as disclosed here:

P. 142   "Although a man is judged by his actions, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done - a judgment that is necessarily hampered, not only by the scope and limits of his imagination, but by the ever-changing measure of his doubt and self-esteem."

pg.149  Pritchard's vision of a woman as a mate is hilarious, if not ignorant. As I record the essence of Catton's characters and the way she describes their physical and psychological selves, I could not leave this passage unrecorded. Bear in mind, he secretly pines for Anna, the whore.

"Pritchard would sooner be inclined to fall for a dairymaid than for a whore - however dull the maid, and however striking the whore. He valued purity and simplicity, plain dress, a soft voice, a tractable will, and a small ambition - which is to say, contrast. His ideal woman would perfectly contrast him: she would be knowable where he was unknowable, composed where he was not. She would be a kind of anchor from above and without; she would be a shaft of light, a comfort, a benediction. Anna Wetherell, with all her excess and intoxication, was too like him. He did not hate her for that, exactly - but pitied her."

Hence, he perceives himself as pitiable.  Well said.

p. 153   Anna Wetherell: It is interesting the way Catton handles Anna's character. By beginning the story with Anna as a well known whore in Hokitika, the reader gets the false impression that she is a prostitute by original choice; as if she came to New Zealand for this exact purpose. Yet, as her history is revealed we learn that, like all the gold prospector's, she too had hoped to make some kind of living in this land where people can reinvent themselves and become rich quickly. Of course, for a woman during the Victorian times, this would have been a tricky pursuit. However, Anna did not come from wealth, was naive, and whoring was not a part of her plan. She was tricked into it, along with the debt she accrued for being sold to a prostitution ring (without her knowledge or consent).

Ironically, Anna is secretly loved by the local men. They fantasize about her beauty and perceived, but unrequited, love. When they realize another man has the same feelings for her, they get jealous despite the fact she is a whore meant for any man's purchase. Catton uses her character to depict this angel-whore dichotomy that was prevalent in Victorian literature.

p. 153    "Anna belonged to the unknowable types, by turns limpid and flashing, whose carriage bespoke an exquisite misery, a wretchedness so perfect and so absolute that it manifested as dignity, as calm.  Anna Wetherell was more than a dark horse; she was darkness itself, the cloak of it...knowing not wisdom, but wickedness - for whatever vicious things one might have done, or said, or witnessed, she was sure to have witnessed worse."

p. 156 : Anna: "This was not exhaustion merely: this was a grief of a different kind. She seemed not so much harassed as halved."

One cannot help but feel pity for this unfortunate adult child.

p. 165   "You give a dog a bad name, an that dog is bad for life."

p. 172   Charlie Frost: "Frost had learned the value of appearing to be unassuming. He knew the latent power of obscurity (powerful, because it aroused curiosity in others)..but he took extreme care to keep this talent hidden."

p. 173  "Charlie Frost tended to conceive of all his relationships in terms of profit and return, and he did not spare a thought for others once he considered that his duty had been served."

P. 176  Charlie Frost's ideal woman:  "Beauty was synonymous with refinement. The ideal woman, was one devoted to the project of her own enhancement, who was accomplished in the female arts of embroidery, piano-playing, pressing leaves, and the like; who sang sweetly, read quietly, and demurred to all opinion; who was a charming and priceless collectible; who loved, above all things, to be loved."

This was typical for the time-period yet, still, one cannot help being stunned, while chuckling, too. It is hard to imagine this extreme form of sexism as having ever existed in modern nations.

p. 177  Dick Mannering:  "His self-perception was an unshakeable one, authoritarian and absolute. He could not view the world but from the perspective of commanding it, and he loved to declaim."

p. 178   Dick Mannering:  "...he saw everyone whom he encountered as reflections of, or detractions from, his own authentic self."

"He very much liked to be mistaken for an aristocrat..."

p. 192  Salting - Claiming false profits to increase the value of a gold mine so the owner can sell it above its real value. Then, when the he sells the mine, he does not take a loss for buying an empty mine, or one that has all its gold already removed. The new owner will learn fairly quickly that he purchased a useless gold claim.

p. 215  Gascoigne: "His code was one of innate chivalry; he had a deep sympathy for people in desperate circumstances...he believed justice ought to be a synonym for mercy, not an alternative."

p. 216  Gascoigne:  "...when he encountered a man whose station was beneath him, he was never rude. To the higher classes, however, he held himself apart...a practice that, though not a strategy in any real sense,...earned him a place among the inheritors of land and fortune, quite as if he had set out to end up there."

p. 225  Men and Anna:  "The men with whom she plied her trade were rarely curious about her. If they spoke at all, they spoke about other women - the sweethearts they had lost, the wives they had abandoned, their mothers, their sisters, their daughters, their wards. They sought these women when they looked at Anna, but only partly, for they also sought themselves: she was a reflected darkness, just as she was a borrowed light. Her wretchedness was, she knew, extremely reassuring."
Interesting. She is like a psychologist to these men, with benefits.

p. 241 Clinch:  He was occupied by his emotion; he was its servant, not its liege."

p. 246  Twin temperaments:  "For Gascoigne and Clinch were not so very dissimilar in temperament, and even in their differences, showed a harmony of sorts - with Gascoigne as the upper octave, the clearer, brighter sound, and Clinch as the bass-note, thrumming."  A lovely voicing of this astute perception.

p. 248  "Clinch's efforts in love were always of a mothering sort, for it is a feature of human nature to give what we most which to receive, and it was a mother that Edgar Clinch most craved...."
Oh, how Freud would have loved this! 

p. 260  Que Long:  "Opium was a symbol, signifying Western contempt towards Chinese and lifeless Western goals of profit and greed." (Very edited.)

p. 284  "Nilssen was very suspicious of Chinese men, having never known one personally; his were the kind of beliefs that did not depend upon empirical fact, and indeed, were often flatly disproved by it, though no disproof was ever enough to change his mind."  This is the basis of all prejudice and why it still exists today, despite logic.

p. 295  "Reason is no match for desire: when desire is purely and powerfully felt, it becomes a kind of reason of its own."

p. 296  "What is a speculator, anyway, but a gypsy wearing different clothes?"

p. 300-1  "Month without a Moon":
This concept is discussed briefly between Gascoigne and Lydia after she says, "I will reward you with a fact...Next month will be a month without a moon."

I do not know what the significance of this is in relation to the story, but am interested in learning.  If anyone wants to comment on this, I would appreciate your thoughts.

The author researched her material thoroughly, so I did not question her veracity, I simply was not aware of the phenomena, so I looked it up. Here are some related facts:

Month with a Moon: This is known as the Metonic Cycle - a lunar cycle phenomena that occurs every 19 years during the month of February.  Every 19 years, February's moon will cycle without developing a full moon. This is due to the fact that it is a shorter month which, over a period of time, causes this to happen. This cycle was named after the Greek astronomer who figured it out, Meton. As a matter of interest, I listed when it will next occur in the 21st century (with 1900 as its reference point:
  •  Last Metonic Cycle:  1999 
  • Metonic Cycles to come:  2018, 2037, 2067 & 2094
Mark your calendars, there is one coming to your hometown in 3.5 short years!

Since we are on this subject, one might ask, so what is a Blue Moon?  This is when one month produces two full moons. One at the beginning of the month and once at the end of the month. This occurs every thirty-three months or, 2.7 years.

For more information, check out this website:

p. 326  Ah Sook: "...he was to extensive self-analysis of the most rigorous and contemplative kind. But he analyzed his own mind as a prophet analyzes his own strange visions - that is, with reverence, and believing always that he was destined to be the herald of a cosmic raison d'etre, a universal plan."

p. 350  "A string of coincidences is not a coincidence."  "And what was a coincidence, but a stilled moment in a sequence that had yet to be explained?"

p. 358  Moody: Did not believe in religion, he believed in logic. "Truth, for him, could be perfected, and a perfect truth was always utterly beautiful and entirely clear."  Moody was not religious and did not, "perceive truth in mystery or in the inexplicable and the unexplained..."

p. 364  "When we looked upon Man, we sought to fix him: we mourned his failures and measured his gifts. We could not imagine what he might have been, had he been tempted to betray his very nature - or had he betrayed himself without temptation, better still."

p. 392  "Moody thought, that a man ought never to trust another man's evaluation of a third man's disposition. For human temperament was a volatile compound of perception and circumstance...' So true.

On addiction and opium via Ah Sook and Anna via Ah Sook:
p. 408  "He knew that the intimacy that they enjoyed together was less a togetherness than it was a shared isolation - for there is no relationship as private as that between the addict and his drug, and they bother felt that isolation very keenly....the ritual of the pipe was, for the pair of them, a holy ritual that was unspeakable and mortified, just as it was ecstatic and divine: its sacredness lay in its very profanity, and its profanity, in its sacred form."

Unnerving, yet truthful, thoughts. Such dark prospects are addictions and the drugs that feed them. Again, I am amazed by the insight of this young writer. She is an old soul.

p. 533  " We are of our own making, and we shall be our own end."

            " is only in Pisces, the last and oldest of the zodiacal signs, that we acquire a kind of selfhood, something whole. But the doubled fish of Pisces, that mirrored womb of self and self-awareness, is an *ourobouros of mind - both the will of fate, and the fated will - and the house of self-undoing is a prison built by prisoners, airless, doorless, and mortared from within. These alterations come upon us irrevocably, as the hands of the clock-face come upon the hour."

Twins figure predominately within this story, literally and figuratively (see quote from p. 246). For example, Ah Sook and Anna; Crosbie Wells and Alistair Lauderback; life and death, self-denial and self-examination, etc.

*ourobouros - (urobouros) as a noun, ourobouros:  A Greek word meaning, tail devourer. It is depicted as a circular symbol of a snake or a dragon swallowing its tail. It is an emblem for wholeness or infinity. This ancient Greek symbol often symbolizes cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return. Renewal.

p. 622  "...never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it it to understand a situation from another person's point of view."  The author makes note of this concept a number of times - the idea that we can never really know any ones thoughts but our own; that to think otherwise is naive, ignorant, and dangerous.

p. 825   Quote: "A woman fallen has no future; a man risen has no past."
My Final Thoughts
As can be seen from my list of quotes, their numbers start to wane around page 400. For point of reference, Part Two of the novel, beginning on page 361, takes the reader away from the January 27th meeting with the twelve men, and the story starts anew in current time. Basically, this is where the poetic writing ends and straight story telling begins. I am still fascinated and not put off by the direct method, and am eager to see where the author is taking me. There are not many quotable quotes, just straight fun story telling. This ends in Part Three (page 521) around the time of the courtroom scene.

By this point, I have already become increasingly disappointed by the narrative; the quality has waned and I am waiting for the author to redeem herself. But it does not happen. There was so much development, I expected the climactic point to blow me away, but it did not. It was as if I went to a great opera, and half-way through the opera, after intermission, I returned to find the Opera House had decided to summarize the rest of the story for its guests, verbally. To top it off, the narrator speeds things up by increasingly summarizing each section. By the time the story ends my thought is simply - what just happened?

I realize the author did a great deal of research at it relates to the planetary content. And there is much more to it then I will ever realize. One thing I am aware of is, the author increasingly shortened each chapter towards the end of the book; in essence, to symbolize and mimic the waning of the moon. The idea is great, yet it falls short as applied method.

Likewise, I thought the zodiac connection was interesting. Again, Catton studied the subject
comprehensively. Yet I think her excitement clouded her vision. In this regard, her perspective and imagination were remarkable in scope, but added little to the overall plot of the novel. Think of the novel without the character and chapter designations.  How much of the plot would change without them? In fact, in some instances, had she not held on steadfastly to this concept some aspects would have likely improved.

Catton has a proclivity towards the written word. She is poetic, intuitive, philosophical, and thoughtfully satiric. Likewise, her character development is complex and well conceived. Her plot development, while a bit perplexing at times, is magnificent. There is little doubt that she is a quality writer in the literary sense, and possesses astute knowledge and understanding of human nature beyond her years. Unfortunately, these qualities did not hold true for the entire novel.

So how does one rate such a novel? My final rating of 3.5 stars was calculated as follows:
                    5 stars for the first 2/3rds of the book
                    2 stars for the last 3rd of the book
                   divided by 2 = 3.5 stars

I realize this does not seem to be a fair computation, but the ending was so disjointed I could not give it 4 stars.

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