Continuing on from the remote Republic of Kiribati, my South Pacific journey has taken a turn back in time to the New Zealand gold rush of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.
He found that he was disappointed: the West Coast Times read like a parish gazette. But what had he expected? That a goldfield would be an exotic phantasm, made of glitter and promise? That the diggers would be notorious and sly—every man a murderer, every man a thief?
In 1866, Scotsman Walter Moody lands in New Zealand, ready to make his fortune on the South Island goldfields. But when he arrives in the middle of the night, he stumbles instead across a secret meeting of twelve local men, and is drawn into their confidence as they discuss a series of unsolved mysteries—the disappearance of a wealthy man, the attempted suicide of a whore, and a fortune found in a dead man’s home.
It was easy for me to empathise with Moody. Not knowing anything about The Luminaries beforehand, I was as adrift as he was upon entering Eleanor Catton’s world and finding what felt like a play I was seeing from the interval onwards. The incidents described in the blurb had already taken place, their consequences were already underway, and around me were a dozen characters whose roles in the story were already established, and who were now obliged to fill Moody and myself in on everything we’d missed.
But if that sounds confusing or tedious, it was far from it—Eleanor Catton is much too masterful a storyteller for that. Hers is a plot built with finesse, its revelations deployed with the exactitude of one who knows just when to illuminate and when to remain cryptic. As the truth unfurls it does so seductively—helped along in no small way by Catton’s charming pastiche of the Victorian theatric, blending sex, murder and buried treasure behind a fog of opium smoke. If you enjoy getting lost in the likes of Anna Karenina or The Count of Monte Cristo, then this is definitely the book for you.
Luckily I loved both of those novels, and so The Luminaries was a perfect fit for my reading taste. But when I was first planning my Booktrotting itinerary, I was reluctant to include it as my New Zealand stop; for one reason or another, I thought my literary world tour would be better served by a setting more contemporary than 1866.
But on the other hand, I was also drawn irresistibly to the backdrop of the West Coast Gold Rush. For all my knowledge of New Zealand’s vineyards and film locations, I know next to nothing about the country’s past, and had no idea it had even had a gold rush—I’d always thought prospectors were exclusive to the American west.
And so with a history lesson in mind, I could hardly have asked any more of The Luminaries. Its plot may be intentionally fanciful to the extreme, but the framework beneath is rife with historical detail: from characters’ names and clothes, to the hierarchy of township society, even to the fine print of shipping insurance, the meticulousness of Catton’s research deserves at least as much praise as the novel itself. She doesn’t so much construct the 19th century West Coast as resurrect it; so tangibly authentic is her depiction of Hokitika’s streets that they feel like a period drama set just waiting for the crew to start filming (which, incidentally, shouldn’t be long now).
But of all the elements of historical accuracy, the one Catton captures best is the diversity found at what was, in 1866, the effective end of the world.
To call her ensemble cast of characters “diverse” wouldn’t quite do it justice—”motley” would probably come closer. In the first scene alone, Scottish-born Moody rubs shoulders not just with émigrés from his own British Isles, but also from Norway, France, Germany and China; there’s surely no irony lost in the character of Te Rau Tauwhare, the only native Maori presence in The Luminaries‘ 832 pages.
Catton uses this kaleidoscope of different perspectives to paint Hokitika in the abstract, as something exotic, elusive and ever-changing, a scene distorted by the expectations of it. Depending on the character, New Zealand means riches, revenge, adventure, anonymity: to some it is the start of a new life, to others it’s just a different place to die.
The paths that lead these characters across the Pacific sound veritably swashbuckling when read together. But I can’t help wondering if that is in fact the point; if, in borrowing from the playbook of the penny dreadful, Catton is also poking fun at our romantic, “greener grass” view of life in this far corner of the world. It’s certainly not hard to see how the modern attraction of New Zealand has grown in part from its goldfield past, and from the tales of glory and wild wonder that would have reached Britain from the West Coast in 1866.
But that being said, it’s clear Catton isn’t trying to debunk New Zealand’s reputation as an idyllic escape—The Luminaries merely presents a tickled new perspective on where that might have originated. And of course, even if our impression of the country has been inflated somewhat by the lens of time and distance, there’s no denying that there is some truth to New Zealand’s allure. It is, after all, still a truly breathtaking country…
Next up is the final stop on my Oceania leg—Australia, for which my guide will be Tim Winton’s story of surfing and boyhood, Breath.