Category Archives: Rita Christine Colasuonno

Luminaries

Rita Christine Colasuonno

 

This is a critical essay on Eleanor Catton’s (youngest author to win the Man Booker Prize) murder mystery and romance novel, The Luminaries, which weighs in with over 800 pages. More information on the author and The Man Booker Prize can be found on their website. http://www.themanbookerprize.com/  Also please find an interesting grant she has established for writers with some of her winnings. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/02/eleanor-catton-grant-time-to-read-the-luminaries#start-of-comments

 

 

 

“Tonight shall be the very beginning”

Will there be more of them?

A great many more.

Are your eyes closed?

Yes though it’s dark it hardly makes a difference.

I feel more than myself

I feel as though a new chamber of my heart has opened

Listen

What is it?

The rain” (832).

 

In Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, this submission, from part twelve is reduced to the final page of the plot, however, the dialogue is monumentally revealing of the mystical bond between Anna Weatherell and Emery Staines, the foreshadowing of the trials they will experience and the force that cannot keep them apart. It can be considered a chore, yet a labor of love to sort through Catton’s long (832 pages) astrologically based and systematically patterned, non-conventional method of retelling the events. It is best to approach with an open mind and heart when sorting through the trail that ultimately leads readers to the union of the lovers.

It is set in the 1800s, in New Zealand, during a gold rush in the mining town of Hokitika, in the midst of a population boom occupied with mostly men from humble pasts; wanting to “strike it” and make a new start.  Deep in the narration, the omniscient narrator breaks from presenting the men of the town and describes the first encounter of these two young hopefuls traveling by ship, fittingly named the Fortunate Wind. Enthralled by the flock of albatross that encircle the ship, which in some cultures symbolize good luck; the two passengers engage in conversation. Not long after the optimistic pair bid farewell, Emery Staines unearths gold and wealth, while deception and addiction finds Anna Wetherell. The young voyagers’ paths are destined to cross again because Anna and Emery are astral soul mates, who share a destiny and whose paths through life, mirror, unbeknownst to each other, only the stars and later Lydia Wells, (the unscrupulous soothsayer) believes they are born of the same latitude and longitude: under the exact sky.

By the author’s own admission, the title, The Luminaries, refers to Anna and Emery’s manifestation and in accordance with the astrological theme,

Catton regards the lovers as the sun and the moon. The Yin-yang of the astrological chart, luna (moon) and sol, (sun) can symbolize day and night which is likened to balance.  Astrologically, the moon is associated with a person’s emotional unconscious, their ability to react and adapt to those around them. The sun represents the conscious ego, pride, a health and vitality considered the “life force”. Emery and Anna are one another’s life force. The strength of their union is recognized by Anna who is certain that Emery is alive when she tells Cowell Devlin that, “I feel him” (545).

Just as the sun and the moon usually encounter infrequently, and there are few days of equal hours of sunlight and darkness (the equinox) Anna and Emery are together only three times in the novel.  It is after that third and an intimate encounter they “awaken” to the notion that should not be torn apart and rely on each other for balance and harmony. One cannot exist without the other. Because Anna lives, so does Emery. Because Emery was literate, so could Anna then read, though she was never taught to read. As he feels, she recognizes and vice versa. “I feel more than myself” as either lover concedes, is an example of this phenomenon, the true rendering of soul mates (832). It is because of this, it is important to Emery, that he gifts half his fortune to Anna, while she offers herself not in a professional sense, but as a gesture of affection. She knowingly leaves the gun that she usually keeps with her in conducting “business” in her room while she is in Emery’s bedroom as a reflection of trust.  In one of the final lines of the novel, the metaphor “I feel as though a new chamber of my heart has opened”, signifies the evolvement of the lovers. The human heart has four chambers, the highest of the developed mammal. Metaphysically, adding a new chamber can symbolize the progression or the development of the relationship from human to celestial.  In the final line of the dialogue, the lovers hear the start of rain, which is a symbol of fertilization, a cleansing of the dirt and possibly the foreshadowing of stormy weather or death.

The primary leaders of the town, a panel of twelve men represent the twelve signs of the zodiac (within the twelve parts of the Catton’s book) set out to piece together the possible murder of Crosbie Wells and the disappearance of the wealthy Emery Staines, although unified in body, are a mass of contradictions.  When it comes to Anna; while at the same time her callers find her an energy or force that is undeniably attractive, as man finds talking to the moon fascinating, her clients are ashamed of themselves for their fascination or attraction to her. For some like Pritchard, the town chemist/pharmacist, Anna represents not his ideal woman whom he preferred to be “thoroughly orthodox…valued purity and simplicity….a perfect contrast of himself, where Anna Wetherell was too like him” (149) Anna was not as experienced as some of her peers in the profession, but she understands that “every man wants his whore to be unhappy” or as mysterious and brooding as the moon (224). She muses, “the men which she plied her trade were rarely curious about her…they sought the women (their sweethearts, wives, mothers) when they looked at Anna, but only partly…they also sought themselves, she was a reflected darkness, a borrowed light…her wretchedness, she knew extremely reassuring” (225).  The borrowed light of the moon can often shed light on things that seem what they are not. Her reflection shed light on their transgressions, weaknesses, and humanity. For this they both loved and loathed her.

While the moon embodies the feminine quality of understanding, the sun is the star at the center of the solar system, around which the Earth and other planets. As the men “dance” around the successful young Emery, and fuss over his fortunes, he admits that his “luck has been rather well exaggerated” and that “luck is never the whole picture” (787-788). This may be an indication that he is cognizant of his birth right and believes in predestination.

Catton flops about the story while narrating events, but is rigid in the length and sections of her novel to 12 parts that suggest the 12 astrological signs of the zodiac, throughout the 832 pages, leaving the reader to piece together the relationships and happenings before and after the meeting of the two young strangers turned lovers, just as the panel of men convening at the Crown Hotel are left to speculate and arrange the events that preceded that fateful evening.

There are aspects of the book that have significant mini subplots that coexist as do the planets in the solar system. The strained relationship between Carver and Ah Sook, the friendship between Te Rau Tauwhare and Crosbie Wells, the toxic marriage of Shepherd and Margaret, and the romantic  link between  Ah Sook and Margaret.  Then, there are relationships in the text which replicate the same mirrored image or “twinship” as Anna and Emery. For example, Moody concedes that “there was a terrible resemblance between Crosbie Wells situation and his own…Wells had been abandoned by his father, as had Moody” as Crosbie’s brother denying his presence and Moody had been betrayed by his brother as well (482).

The panel at the Crown Hotel’s smoking room has a vested right in one or the other (Emery or Anna) and a self-serving interest, the only characters with pure and selfless, divine intentions are Anna and Emery. So it is a love story set among the chaos and rubble of the gold mining town.

And yet there is one disturbing detail that could tarnish Staine’s amorous intentions and make him an honorary member of the panel (at least of mindset) at the Crown Hotel. The idea that the young man purchases his beloved’s services for the evening because “so many men knew her as he wanted to know her” Does it cheapen the gesture of love?  He questions the thought himself, when he wonders, “if it would defeat the purpose of a gift, if he had already paid for the pleasure of her company” (827).   The narrator provides no clear indication that the idea of “buying Anna” is an unsettling idea, as a modern reader may be less accepting and deduce that although Anna is minus debt even after she is “gifted” Staines fortune, she may be still indebted emotionally to her suitor and will always be perceived as a prostitute, even by Emery Stains. As a contradiction to this argument and in the same circular defense, we can look to the words of Emery Staines, “true feeling is always circular either circular or paradoxical –simply because its cause and its expression are two halves of the very same thing. Love cannot be reduced to a catalog of reasons why and a catalog of reasons cannot be put together into love” (669).

 

 

 

 

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Rita Colasuonno

The narrative of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, follows a man’s quest to make peace with his actions or lack thereof.  When Harold Fry receives a letter from the cancer-ridden Queenie Hennessy, the goodbye note sparks feelings of regret and renewed hope for the retired Harold.  Fry is an emotionally immobile, timid and weak character, but the bold decision to walk over 500 miles for his dying friend awakens him. The reader can visualize the protagonist’s sense of entrapment through the imagery in the novel’s first few pages, when Harold gazes outside his window and sees, “a ribbon of plastic caught in the laurel hedging, flapping up and down, but never pulling free” (6). Harold Fry feels trapped and Queenie Hennessy serves as the catalyst he desires to escape from his situation.

The author weaves contrasting concepts throughout the story. Harold’s pilgrimage represents the antithesis of his sedentary existence. The man who preferred to travel under the radar for most of his life embarks on a journey that connects the introvert to the outside world. While compelled to listen to the tales of the strangers he meets, he reflects on his own deep seeded memories and mistakes. After spending his first night in the open, he comes, “to understand that this was a truth about his walk. He was both a part of things and not” (201). On his path, he discovers that the simple task of walking in exchange for Queenie’s life evokes strangers to trust him and “that in walking to atone for the mistakes he made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others” (90). In understanding the strangeness of others, Harold accepts his own feelings of abandonment and resentment from his parents, the sense of helplessness he felt with his son and even the haunting silence from his wife.

The act of purging or detaching himself from the few possessions he was carrying-his wallet, souvenirs and plasters-symbolize his willingness to give or expose himself emotionally to the travelers’ and their dilemmas.  He comes to believe that “it was as much a gift to receive as it to give, requiring as it did both courage and humility” (201).  Nevertheless, despite his liberating actions, he did not trade or discard of his tired yachting shoes. The broken shoes are a representation of him. While he is discovering the joy of giving himself, he values the idea of being true to himself and fears the dangers of losing who he is, Harold. He is not searching for a new identity, just the desire to make a difference.

The turning point of the novel begins to take Harold on a different course: it becomes not only physically exhausting, but also mentally draining on him because of the emotional baggage from those who cross his path. As he takes on more land, he finds more people eager to confess and follow him. Joyce unites Fry’s unfamiliar surroundings and people with similar personalities of those in his life. Just as Queenie represents Fry’s catalyst for change, Harold’s trip gives the troubled souls he meets a reason for evaluating their own disappointments and a second chance at getting things right. Some even offer an opportunity for Harold to absolve himself from his past mistakes. The addicted, young Wilf, of whom he seems to be very protective of, reminds Fry of his son, David. The witty and resourceful, Martina takes him back to a time when his wife Maureen was just as loving and nurturing. Rich has the ruthless qualities of both his father and distrusting boss, Napier. Kate embodied the same characteristics of loyalty and honesty that Queenie possessed.  For some of Harold’s new friends it was also an escape from reality or an opportunity to gain from him.  Just as some of the relationships in Fry’s life have not always been healthy or pure, some had their own motivation for following him, such as Rich and the journalists who decided to part ways from Harold so they may arrive faster.  Kate stayed behind and delivered the news to Harold- that Rich wanted “to form a splinter group…. no one expressed an opinion…but by morning….a lot of campaigning had taken place…it was time to break free” (259).

The diversity of the personalities he finds is just as challenging as the terrain and elements he endures, but the pilgrim soon discovers the landscape begins to blend, as do the stories of the people he befriends. The narrator notes that “Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human” (158). The denouement of the novel reveals for the weary, much traveled Harold that, “in walking, he finds that no matter how far he had gone that the people in both his past and present “were part of the air he walked through, just as all the travelers he had met were a part of it (318).  He could not escape his past or reality, no more than he could change the problems of those he met.

At the same climatic point in the novel, Harold finds his purpose for walking,

Maureen, his wife discovers her reason for remaining behind. Contradictory to her husband who was destined to walk for his shortcomings, she chose to remain captive to their English cottage.  Maureen’s decision to stay home is just as significant in the novel as Harold’s urgency to keep moving. It demonstrates how each spouse handled the elements of coping with their grief. In the absence of her over-obliging mate, who supports her fantasy of keeping David’s presence alive, Maureen begins to take the necessary steps for her recovery. She returns to the place that brought her joy as a wife and mother, the garden. When she clears the rubble from the garden, it occurs to her that” it was good to feel the soil inside her nails and to nurture something again” (193).

The Frys’ only son ended his life in the potting shed where both Maureen and Harold had cultivated flora life. Gardening, the growing and sowing of living plants is a representation of the love and nurture Maureen gave to their son, David.  Symbolic of her fears for preying creatures and May frost ruining her garden, she realizes she cannot control the destiny of her tiny fragile runner beans no more than she, nor Harold could have saved their troubled son from taking his life. By removing the thick net curtains or as the author metaphorically refers to them, “as tender pieces of themselves that people stake as boundaries against the outside world”, and replacing them with light airy window trimmings, Maureen is preparing for David’s release, just as much as she is hoping for Harold’s return.

Although the end brings the realization for both Harold and Maureen that the past is the same and cannot be changed, erased, or even ignored, through their separate trials they had come back to find themselves and each other. The longtime couple’s coping methods were in contrast much different from each other’s; they were able to accomplish the same result. While the introverted Harold found comfort far away and by many, Maureen was able to find relief close to home with a select few.