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
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).