Eleanor Catton is a Canadian born New Zealand screenwriter and novelist. She has written two novels The Rehearsal and The Luminaries. Her second novel, The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize in 2013 making her the youngest author to receive the honour. The book is set in the year 1866 and dated January 27.
There is a man called Walter Moody who has come to a New Zealand town called Hokitika, where gold mining is done. The main aim behind him visiting the town is to try his hand in digging. His boat ride experience is not very good as he witnessed something supernatural and different. The readers do not understand immediately what he saw.
After landing, Moody goes to Crown Hotel and chills out in a room. As he goes to the smoking room, he sees twelve men who are doing something important and want to be left alone. When everyone in the room understands that they can trust Walter, they take him into confidence and tell him about everything going on in the town.
All the incidents seem to be interrelated including gunshots, missing man, fraud, possible murder, drug use, stolen identities, stolen treasure and a prostitute who tries to commit suicide. The stakes are very high here and it does not seem to be a mystery appearing in the books of Nancy Drew.
After everybody puts in their part of the story, the men conclude that the missing man named Emery Staines might be dead and Crosbie Wells was probably murdered by Francis Carver. Moody has come to the ship which was captained by Carver so he is asked to investigate and he picks up his trunk the next day. As the meeting draws to a conclusion, the meeting’s agenda collides with the news that Godspeed is wrecked.
The book then starts after three weeks from the day Godspeed has been wrecked. Lydia Wells, widow of Crosbie has started her entertainment place and she is going to call the dead along with Anne Wetherell, a local prostitute who has quit her profession after the suicide attempt and now assists Wells.
Their main purpose is to call the spirit of Emery Staines. This is somehow equal to Sylvia Browne. Sook, the owner of a local opium shop is Anna’s dealer and old friend who goes to visit her at Lydia’s hotel where Anna is currently residing. Sook is taken aback when he sees Lydia as he recognizes her from the Sydney days.
He knows very well that she is a so-called friend of Francis Carver whom he wants to kill as he drove Sook’s father to commit suicide but he assumes that Carver is out of town. Lydia also recognizes Sook and does not ignore him but asks him to come to the spirit calling session at night. Sook agrees to it and brings Quee along. The spirit calling session does not call Staines but Lydia directs it to Carver saying some words in Cantonese that Sook had said to him when he wanted to kill him.
Lydia’s tricks make the lamp fall on its own and set the table on fire. Lydia’s nonsense of directing Carver’s spirit to Sook does not work as Sook comes to know that Carver is alive and in town. He takes a gun and resolves to kill Carver as early as possible. This is what we can call a preplanned murder.
There is somebody who is on the lookout to avenge Sook which creates many more problems for Sook. George Shephard is the brother of a man who is accidentally shot the time when Sook tries to kill Carver. He ends up shooting Sook before Sook can avenge the murder of his father. Amidst everything, Te Rau witnesses Emery Staines in Crosbie Wells house.
He is injured and appears hysterical. He arranges medicines and transport for Staines but ends up in jail. All this is because his lover Anna is there on charges of toxication after she faints mysteriously while talking to a lawyer about a fortune that she might get. After a month, Anna and Emery are put on trial for different crimes related to all the mysterious happenings being written in the book.
As the trial proceeds, the bad behaviour of Lydia and Frank Carver is highlighted. The court then takes Frank into custody. When he is being taken to jail, someone breaks into the transport and hurts his head. Anna is bailed out and Staines who pleads guilty is given nine months of labour punishment.
He, however, makes all the financial arrangements to make sure that Anna is comfortable and safe when is away like a knight in shining armour. After the trial gets over, Moody leaves Hokitika and does not know that his father is in town looking for him. He strikes a friendship with Paddy Ryan while leaving the town and they exchange stories during the journey and Walter has some exciting stories in his kitty.
Family is a very touchy subject for a lot of characters in the novel. Many characters have some or the other family drama in the past and they cannot escape from its shackles. They are bubbling in their present in the ways they do not like and cannot control. We can take the instance of Alistair Lauderback whose half brother Crosbie keeps on blackmailing him and it is the case that the sins of his father come to bite him.
There is a lot of revenge going on the behalf of dead relatives. Sook is trying to avenge the death of his father from Carver and Shephard is after Sook as he believes that Sook has killed his brother. A family ruins another family for revenge.
Catton makes the family a fluid concept to show that class and social boundaries are diminishing in that particular time and context. The main aim of showing Moody’s father at the end of the novel is to show that the past will always come to bite you no matter how far you go. The novel is filled with many interconnected mysteries due to which lies and deceit become its common theme.
If the characters would not have been lazy in telling the truth the mysteries would not have been dragged the way they do. The book till the end manages to keep some secrets intact even from the readers and in the case of certain mysteries we do not exactly come to know what happened to them.
It is not a problem if the book keeps some secrets closed to us as it brings out the recurring message of the novel that absolute truth can never come out from anybody’s mouth. The novel focuses more on the dynamics of interpersonal relationships than the truth. Some supernatural elements cannot be explained in the book.
Had all the characters spoken out the complete truth, the ending of the novel would not have been what it was. The novel says that trying to tell the truth is the only way to let yourself out. Moody believes that class is not as important in Hokitika as it was in the British Isles. A person with an extremely low birth like Crosbie can also raise his status instantly with a gold strike which eventually happens before Lydia Wells stole his cash.
Not everybody is happy about this particular thing called gold frenzy. Crosbie while writing a letter to his higher class brother Alistair Lauderback says that many people object to keeping gold as evil as they feel threatened by the rise in status these gold bars were creating. Class and social divisions are still alive in the hearts and minds of people no matter how much rich they are and these differences cannot be entirely wiped out.
Gold and Ponamu are different for Te Rau as one symbolizes global capitalism which has taken over his homeland and the other is tradition before the gold rush commenced in New Zealand and the place was undisturbed by western capitalism and prospects.
It may seem strange but both luck and destiny are an important part of The Luminaries. Both the concepts exist peacefully in the novel. The universal nature of the novel on the one hand hints that the future is already written permanently in the stars. The novel on the other hand is set in a gold town and makes a lot of references to bad and good luck and chances and suggests that superstitions do exist.
There is a tension between the idea of destiny and a principle that chance or some other force can interfere at any point in changing the future within the story. The decision is left on the readers to decide whether destiny or chance plays a main role in the life of all the characters. We see that there is no chance of coincidence or free will in the novel. It is destiny that rules throughout the story.