The setting is in the gold rush days of 19th century New Zealand. There is an intricate plot and a theatrical cast of characters whose passions, motivations, and desires bounce and reflect off each other in a dizzying kaleidoscope. But it is the method of spinning the story that has synergistically bumped up the complexity. Why choose A+B+C=D when E=MC2 can be so much more fun to work with? Or in this case, the architecture of astrology. “I previously had a rudimentary understanding of how astrology works,” the author says. “But I became really taken with the idea that what it is fundamentally about is there is no truth except for truth in relation: nothing is objectively true, something is only true compared to something else.” (From an interview with Tom Tivnan at WeLoveThisBook.com)
Twelve characters are based on signs of the zodiac, and several others are “planetary” characters. Just as astrology (which incidentally Catton regards as “silly”), represents the interaction of the planets and constellations, so goes the course of the story. Nothing is true except when compared to something else. (See Aaron's great review about the role of the astrology: http://www.typographicalera.com/luminaries-eleanor-catton/ ).
But this is a framing device well cloaked in the Victorian story-telling style. It is an old-fashioned yarn, taking part in the ‘olden days’, and is replete with reprobates, whores, greedy graspers, moralising bigots, and a fair share of pompous white guys representing the self-regarding pillars of society. One Maori fella (a surprisingly minor role for the Maori in this tale) and a couple of Chinese characters from Chinatown round out the cast. Someone dies, by fair or foul means? And who gets his gold?
The characters’ psychologies are richly drawn: “Moody was not unaware of the advantage his inscrutable grace afforded him. Like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior.”
Of the town whore Anna, and her clients: “If they spoke at all, they spoke about other women—the sweethearts they had lost, the wives they had abandoned, their mothers, their sisters, their daughters, their wards. They sought these women when they looked at Anna, but only partly, for they also sought themselves: she was a reflected darkness, just as she was a borrowed light. Her wretchedness was, she knew, extremely reassuring.”
Anna knows that ‘A woman fallen has no future; a man risen has no past.’
It is the exceptional psychological portraits and lyrical prose which elevates this beyond a Victorian murder mystery dressed up in a gimmicky device.
It is a stellar achievement.