This year I have been an advocate for the Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóðið. Anyone who knows me well will know that I spent a couple of years fixated on Old Icelandic and its mythology. It transpires that I am also a big fan of modern Icelandic traditions, as Jólabókaflóðið is a relatively new Christmas tradition involving the exchange of books and chocolates on Christmas Eve. Iceland is well-known for its prolific book industry and the run up to Christmas has been affectionately nicknamed the Yule Book Flood as many new titles are released for the holiday rush. The thought of curling up with a volume chosen by a loved one and some sweet treats is one that captured my imagination very quickly, so I convinced my nearest and dearest to join me in trying it out this year. My partner and I went over to our local bookshop and…well….chose books for ourselves, then bought each other what we wanted. We meant to try picking for each other but it was too hard to resist temptation! We have sworn to do it properly next year.
My choice was a book that caught my eye as a fusion of two of my great interests – antiquated beliefs in lunar astrology and a complex, long mystery novel. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, set in nineteenth-century New Zealand was just the ticket for keeping me company on my long return journey home from a family Christmas.
Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)
I really fell hard for this book, as from the very beginning it had such a whiff of an older style to it. On top of this, Catton really delves into the inner workings of her characters, with introspection and descriptions that really show you both the inside and out of each person she introduces to the plot. Truly it is not so much a story as a plot, since each new paragraph seemed to bring further tangles to the questions raised, until I could barely imagine how it could be resolved. I was hooked, reading hundreds of pages each day, carrying the giant tome around and reading in every moment…only to find that the ending was slightly unsatisfying, as the pace slowed and became choppy, as things seemed to start to resolve the questions but then answers were thrown at me in quick succession, until the final page where it became clear that the story was being sacrificed to Catton’s literary ideas. I saw that the brilliance of the characters, the tension that was built, the red herrings, and the complex narratives weaving in and out of one another had all been abandoned to structure and form. There were so many clever characters, twists, ideas, and mysteries. Catton is a master of the long-form mystery, that is certain. I just wish she hadn’t spoiled it at the end with the sense of a waning moon, since it meant that the novel lost its force – ending with bathos rather than a climatic bang that you would expect from a whodunnit. But then this is no typical mystery book, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much for the first seven hundred pages.
Catton’s greatest strength is her ability to create realistic, likeable characters, that are sympathetic even in their ugliest behaviours. Each of the twelve zodiacal characters (each assigned to one of the zodiac signs) is subtly aligned to the stereotypical traits of each sign – for example, Benjamin Löwenthal, the man who runs the local newspaper, is the Gemini. Rather than using the sign’s duality to give the man a twin brother or make his moods shift from happy to angry, Catton cleverly depicts him as a man often torn between two choices that he is unable to choose from. I found it interesting to see how she wove these characteristics into her cast and it certainly gave a breadth of personalities into her story. As for uglier behaviours, there was a lot of overt racism in the story, as four of the Zodiac are native, Chinese, or Jewish (as well as sexism towards the female characters). This came in two flavours: either a blatant disregard for the humanity of these characters, as with the unpleasant, rich, and arrogant Dick Mannering violently threatening Quee Long for information or Edgar Clinch undressing the drugged Anna Wetherell and bathing her naked body without her consent. The other – and the more complex – was with likeable, even witty characters casually dehumanising the non-white or non-Christian characters, as in the following exchange between Thomas Balfour and Te Rau Tauwhare:
“Give us your name again? Your name.”
“Ko Te Rau Tauwahre toku ingoa.”
“Crikey,” Balfour said. “Give us just the name part. […]
“Te Rau Tauwahre.”
“Can’t say that either,” Balfour said. He shook his head. “Well—what do your friends call you, then—your white-man friends? What did Crosbie call you?”
“Not much better, is it?” Balfour said. “I’d be a fool to try, wouldn’t I? How about I call you Ted? That’s a good British name for you. Short for Theodore or Edward—you can choose. Edward’s a nice name.”
Tauwhare did not respond.
“I’m Thomas,” Balfour said, placing his hand on his heart. “And you’re Ted.” He leaned over and patted Tauwhare on the crown of his head. The man flinched, and Balfour, in surprise, quickly snatched his hand back and took a step backwards. 
It was a book with many intelligent moments like this, where we are able to see how repulsive such behaviour is without Catton having to explain this outright. It is the body language, the sly comments here and there that truly demonstrate how arrogant and inappropriate white people were in the nineteenth century. These microaggressions, on top of the more overt violence in the novel show a more nuanced view of society — and one that we do not often see in history books.
Alongside these important social messages, Catton’s book is long enough that it can leisurely shift in moods and tones to include some really moody beautiful moments, some lighthearted wit and banter, some flashbacks and hints at earlier naïvety in her characters. I really enjoyed some of the later moments with the wonderful character Emery Staines, who is only introduced deep into the story, after much speculation. His sweet nature reminded me strongly of a favourite character from the second book in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series — the dreamy young Ivan, who becomes one of Anne’s bosom friends. He brings lots of brightness to the story after some dark and vicious actions and plots, as in the following exchanges with one of the central villains of the story:
“How do I paint a picture of my father? He is a reading man, and he is well regarded in his profession, but he has a queer sense of things. For example: he tells me my inheritance comprises only his fiddle and his shaving razor—saying that if a man is to make his way in the world, all he needs is a good shave and the mean to make some music.” 
“What would you say to a gold sovereign?”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever addressed one before,” said Staines.
Carver stared at him. 
He also has a quirky love of nature and life, as evidenced by his laissez faire approach to his own destiny, to human society and conventions. He also has peculiar, but totally sympathetic, feelings about life, as in his rambling to fellow passenger, Anna Wetherell, on a ship surrounded by birds:
“I suppose I ought to go and wake the others. It’s too perfect a sight to be missed.”
“Don’t,” the boy said. “Oh, don’t. Would you mind? I couldn’t bear to have a crowd of people jostling about. Not at this hour. Somebody’s bound to say “Instead of the cross, the albatross”, or “he stoppeth one of three”, and then the rest of the journey would be quite lost to argument—everyone trying to piece together the poem, I mean, and quarrelling over which pieces go where, which each man trumping the next, and showing off his memory. Let’s just enjoy it for ourselves. Dawn is such a private hour, don’t you think? Such a solitary hour. One always hears that said of midnight, but I think of midnight as relatively companionable—everyone together, sleeping in the dark. 
But Staines is just one of many charming characters that Catton takes the space to depict while unravelling her complex plot. Sometimes they are given their own chapters or segments, where we follow them in a part of the story, sensing their personalities through interactions with others or opinions about the mystery. Other times, we meet secondary characters through the viewpoint character, which is often just as effective, in this example early on, after Balfour has offered to take on the task of making enquiries on his friend’s behalf:
In fact this was the kind of delegation to which Alastair Lauderback was accustomed, as a man of means. It was not strange to him that Balfour should devote his Saturday to straightening out another man’s affairs. He did not pause to wonder whether Balfour could be risking his own reputation, by associating himself with a story of cuckoldry, blackmail, murder, and revenge, and nor did he spare a thought for how Balfour might be recompensed. He felt only relief. An invisible order had been restored: the same kind of order that ensured his boiled egg was ready every morning, and the dishes cleared away. [80-81]
I thought this was such a clever observation about the entitlement that wealthy and powerful people have, as when people assume themselves to be above others, they fail to consider the needs of those they perceive to be beneath them. Such comments are so true to life and really bring the people Catton writes of to a higher level of realism, even while remaining very artistic and entertaining. Another such witticism reminded me of someone I know very well, in a way that seemed to peel away another secret layer of his personality:
For although a man is judge by his actions, by what he has said and done, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done 
There were some extremely beautifully written moments in the book, where the story seemed to have space for art. Some were quietly slipped into dialogue, as characters seemed to transcend their own speech patterns to twinkle more brightly, merging with the narrator’s more beautiful style, as with the phrase: “When a man’s full of opium it’s like he’s made of water.”  At another tense moment, when Harald Nilssen is being blackmailed by the town gaoler, he “ha[s] a vision of a cat tapping a small rodeo back and forth with the flat of its paw, its claws in sheath.”  Finally, within one of my favourite scenes in the book, the narrative almost reaches the height of poetry, as Catton describes Anna Wetherell and Aubrey Gascoigne in a single moment:
Anna went to the armoire to fetch the brandy, and Gascoigne sat down upon the bed to light his cigarette—and just for a moment they were fixed in a tableau, the kind rendered on a plate, and sold at a fair as an historical impression: he with his wrists on his knees, his head bowed, his cigarette dangling from his knuckles—she with her hand on her hip, her weight upon one leg, pouring him a measure. But they were not lovers, and it was not their room. 
Gascoigne was my favourite character, really, as I found he brought a wry humour and kindness wrapped in cleverness to any scene he was in. At first he appeared quite brusque, but this was slowly revealed to unveil an old romantic with an instinct for friendship, as shown in his rescuing Anna and in befriending the lonely stranger in town, Walter Moody. The moment where he and Moody eat breakfast together is so real it felt quite palpable, when Moody tries not to offend Gascoigne by rushing their meal, though he wants to pick up his long-awaited luggage.
Speaking of cleverness, the most brilliant twists in the story’s mystery lay in two places: firstly, the devil very much lay in the details here, and secondly, in the most esoteric answers reachable only through research. I was in awe when we discovered on of the brilliant ways in which gold was concealed, replaced, and revealed to be sewn into the boning and lining of five dresses at different times in the story. Elsewhere, there was some ingenuity about a signature being designed to be read two ways – in order to cover the signatory in case he was exposed as using a false name. The esoteric mysteries, on the other hand, are not explained directly within the story and I was left feeling quite dissatisfied until I chased for the answers myself. One excellent source was a book discussion blog where one reader explained the burning question I was left with, as I was unaware that the story contained an aspect of magical realism in the two Astral Twin characters, Anna Wetherell and Emery Staines. More specifically, at one point Anna is able to sign a contract with Emery’s signature perfectly, despite being illiterate and never having seen the signature before. I came away feeling annoyed that I was expected to think she just knew his character well enough to sign it. However, as I found, there was a better, though more mysterious and magical explanation:
Finally the Astral Twins – Anna and Emery, are a clear indication of the relevance of astrology in the book.
On the subject of the astral twins and the ambiguity throughout the book, there are numerous subtleties that run throughout, that on first reading may not be apparent. I would definitely like to hear others theory on their relationship, mine is as follows. Anna takes the laudanum overdose, which effects [sic] Emery, leading him to fall into the shipping container, unconscious (in the last chapter Anna and Emery both stumble and fall at the same time). Unnoticed he is nailed in and taken on board the Godspeed. Later Anna shoots herself, but the bullet is transferred to Emery, who is seen spurting blood in a “ghostly” manner by Moody. The ship wrecks and Emery washes ashore, but is sustained by Anna who becomes thin and weak despite eating normally because she was sustaining him, Emery taking her opium habit from her (he becomes addicted at the time that she quits – she states that she took a lot of opium yet felt no effects of it when Gascoigne is interrogating her in her hotel room) and the way that she is able to sign his name even though she is illiterate. I believe that there are many more subtleties throughout the book that I probably missed out on. [user maverickf1]
With this understood, I am happy to bow my head to Catton’s cleverness, conceding my prior frustrations, though this is not clear at all from the book itself and I wonder at the reason for leaving this mystery out of the book. Overall, though, I really enjoyed this novel and found myself certain that I will one day read it again and discover even more from the second reading. I just doubt it will happen soon, at just shy of 850 pages!
Similar books: Ursula Le Guin, Tehanu; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anna Karenina; Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red; Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Petals of Blood; L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea.