It’s that cover, the thick binding surrounding The Luminaries’ inked pages that gets me – that beautiful moon girl staring out. She sits on my shelf, piled among all the other books, quietly looking, inviting me to open and read those pages again.
So I did.
It’s 1866 and the golden veins of New Zealand are bleeding out – sliced and drained by men from all over the world, ready to make their fortune. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries begins with a secret council. Twelve men assemble to make sense of the chaos that has begun to surround their small town – a wealthy young man has disappeared, a prostitute has tried to take her life, and a pile of gold has been uncovered in the home of a deceased hermit. There’s secrets, pseudonyms, stars, ships, opium, the occult, and in the midst of it all, unaware of the storm that surrounds her, is a prostitute, Anna Wetherell.
This book is tattooed, like my own skin (a star on my sternum, the moon hiding behind my elbow, and a constellation on my forearm that crosses my line of vision with every reach), with celestial bodies. Each character is aligned to a star sign – their personality is mirrored to their celestial counterpart, and like the waning moon, this book undoes itself as the mystery is uncovered.
Perhaps when I return to The Luminaries later in my life, I will be wise enough to fully comprehend the hidden meanings behind Catton’s astrological literary alignments. Or maybe I won’t. But its depth and complication means that upon every reread I know I will glean a little more understanding and insight to the novel.
The Luminaries was my constant companion through my first British Winter: as the cold settled in and darkness descended in the early evening, I would nest on the couch with endless cups of coffee and just read. Read and read and read. The first time I read this book (in a hurried and feverish few days before it was announced as the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize), I was captivated by the mystery, and obsessed with finding out how Catton would weave the fates of the characters together. I was left satisfied and astounded by her craft of storytelling. But on this read, I already knew the story. So I had the freedom to luxuriate in The Luminaries’ beautiful prose.
Alone, the words were wonderful, and reminded me of what I had left behind – the deep wet green of New Zealand, a green that cannot be found anywhere else, and “the yellow plains of the East…the mountains blue with distance…the verdant fjords, hushed by still waters.” For others, the sheer size of this novel – a tome at 848 pages – is a daunting labor (of love). But for me, every page was a page to cure my homesickness. In the depths of the dark Winter, the vast size of The Luminaries allowed me to spend time on the shores of New Zealand’s wild coast – home.
In a book littered with characters, (so much so that I had to continually flip to the front to remind myself who was who) the most intriguing character in Catton’s masterpiece is the narrator itself. The narrator at times is telling, revealing the innermost thoughts of each person, yet at others the narrator is flippant and hurried. Catton uses the commanding ‘we’, making me feel as if I too was there watching over the characters as their fates unfurl. Through the use of ‘we’ I was able to step into the fading light of the Hokitika opium den, feel the hard hiss of sand against my face, and attempt to untangle the threads of the mystery at the heart of the novel.
Above all, The Luminaries made me deeply aware of the importance of reading fiction from my homeland. When I lived in New Zealand, I was indifferent to its literature. I read it when I had to, or when a particular story stood out, but I didn’t seek it out or hunt it down. Now that I don’t live in New Zealand I long for stories of Aotearoa. I relish in the familiarity it brings. Moving away has heightened my awareness of my identity as a New Zealander, and has made me proud of my heritage. I read this book and gleaned understanding from the Maori words and phrases littered throughout. I knew what they meant and the voice in my head pronounced them as they should be – with the long vowels that roll off the tongue.
Just like all books I read, the margins of this book are filled with annotations, not only of my thoughts and feelings, but of Maori translations – so that when I force the book upon others (telling them it’s worth the commitment) they too can read and understand and hear the voice of my homeland.