September 22, 2014

Put On Your "Luminaries" Face: Opening Night with Eleanor Catton at the Thin Air Writers Festival

by Jennifer Clark

I had to laugh when writer Eleanor Catton described what she calls the “Luminaries face:” the look her partner would get when she “emerged all breathless” from a solid day’s work, excited to share the latest updates on her novel’s progress. This summer I saw my own version of that face on a friend of mine during my month-long reading of Catton’s 832-page novel, The Luminaries.

If my friend’s look is anything like her partner’s, it’s a mix of attentiveness and bemusement as he tries to follow my enthusiastic account of the characters and plot lines in this complex, densely populated murder mystery set in the 1860’s gold rush in New Zealand.

I think I had a Luminaries face of my own as I made my way through the novel. It was sometimes difficult to keep track of everything and everyone. But that is one of the things I enjoyed most about the book: puzzling over each fragment of the story, flipping back to re-read earlier sections of the novel, and trying to fit the pieces together much like the characters try to do. And I enjoyed the people who fill this novel: fascinating and full of life.

Eleanor Catton reads from The Luminaries
So I was looking forward to hearing Catton speak about her book on the opening night of this year’s Thin Air festival. She began by reading three excerpts from the novel. In conversation with festival director Charlene Diehl, Catton spoke at length about the structure of the novel. The Luminaries was built on what Catton calls celestial archetypes, in that each character represents a Zodiac sign or a planetary body, and their upcoming encounters with one another are drawn on astrological charts that appear at the beginning of each section of the novel. 

I liked learning more about this, because while I was aware of this dimension of the book, I didn’t pay as much attention to it as I could have when I was reading it. In my opinion, the book is still good without it. After all, it is the lives of these characters that really drew me in, not the structures. The approach intrigued me though, and I was already planning to read the book again in the near future so that I can better appreciate it. This evening with Eleanor Catton has given me a head-start. 

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