By Fern Mercier | February 3, 2014
(Our blog author, whilst marveling at the literary establishment that ignores astrological arcana, digs for golden nuggets while unravelling the mysteries of the silver threads at the heart of the recent novel, The Luminaries.)
Since reading Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, I have searched for reviews to supplement my understanding of the book, but have found very few that mention astrology, and then only fleetingly. As the very architecture of the book, not to mention its contents, is informed and infused with astrological wisdom, this may illustrate how fundamentally marginalised astrology is from the mainstream gatekeepers of our cultural practices. One particularly obnoxious New Zealand reviewer states: “a five finger exercise webbed together by the dubious dinosaur cement of astrology.” This quote, despite coming from a nasty, misogynistic review, seems to sum up the overall underlying attitude toward astrology of the English-speaking world’s top reviewers — The Guardian, NY Times, Telegraph, The Listener, etc. — although their reviews of the book itself are much kinder, wiser, and more insightful than our sour-grapes resident Kiwi.
And, of course, the Man Booker judges saw fit to give Catton the prize from a field of first-class world writers. (1) This speaks of the vivid power of her writing, the intricacy of her plot, and the marvelous mis-en-scene she creates in the Wild West gold digging town of Hokitika during the mid-1860s.
I found the book hard to put down — it is a lively murder mystery that lured me in with a cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter. Every sentence led me on, or doubled me back to fit a puzzle that was challenging to de-code, but fun to try. I’m not sure if the style of writing, which reminds me of Charles Dickens, was meant to be a parody or a tribute to the great 19th-century Victorian novels. The compelling setting, the intricate descriptions, the multiple story-lines, the old-time chapter headings, the melodrama, the confessions and revelations from realistic characters — all of these combine into a classic confabulation that turns back into itself, ending at its beginning. Extraordinary!
And then there is the astrology. The first page gives us a Character Chart where the 20 main characters are identified as signs and planets, with places identified as astrological Houses. The dead man, Crosbie Wells, is classified under the heading of Terra Firma, and orbiting around him are seven characters who represent the Planets. There are also another 12 male characters who are grouped as Stellar, and who symbolise the zodiac signs as identified in the astrological charts that Catton provides at the beginning of each Part. Each chapter within each Part is set on the day of that chart. Each chapter has a heading that tells of the astrological influences at work, e.g., under Mercury in Sagittarius, we are introduced to Walter Moody, who is identified as Mercury in the Character Chart and moves under the force of Reason.
The book is long, but has an unusual structure. The first Part has 360 pages! (360° in the zodiac wheel). There are 12 Parts, with each part having exactly half the word count of the one that came before it, so the book curls in on itself — a sphere within a sphere.
This is complex, cunning, mind-bending wit, and yet you don’t have to know astrology to enjoy the experience of reading this intrigue. The astrology enhances the experience, yet not knowing it obviously doesn’t diminish the engrossing tale, as most of the reviewers testify.
I find Catton’s knowledge breathtaking, and her structural and writing achievement marvelous. I quibble over one of her characters using the tarot cards, as they weren’t part of the English-speaking world’s experience until the very late 19th century. Yet her overall historical reconstruction is absorbing. I do find disconcerting her traditional astrology’s patriarchal bias that gives form to a cast of all male characters (except for the feminine Moon and Venus). Although I grudgingly acknowledge the overwhelmingly masculine presence in that neck of the woods at that historical time, the lack of women among the “12 good men and true” of the zodiac still jars a feminist perspective. And indeed, Margaret Shepherd — playing Moon to her husband’s tyrannical Saturn — has a significant role in the plot despite her absence from the Character Chart. Perhaps she didn’t quite fit Catton’s schema? (The 13th sign?)
However, I love the author’s unique and thoughtful astrological interpretations. And I love the very thought of a major book that utilises astrology in such an intellectual, genius way as a poke in the eye to the chattering classes, who, in general, despise the very notion of astrology.
Having poured over Catton’s sunrise horoscope (Libra Sun with combust Mercury and retrograde Jupiter and Moon in Aquarius), I laugh at the reviewers critiquing her “cool” and “detached” style. (2) I guess it takes all that elemental airy elegance, combined with the sting in the tail of Saturn in Scorpio, to ruffle the feathers of the establishment.
Kirsty Gunn in the Guardian states:
“But it is also a massive shaggy dog story; a great empty bag; an enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat. For nothing in this enormous book, with its exotic and varied cast of characters whose lives all affect each other and whose fates are intricately entwined, amounts to anything like the moral and emotional weight one would expect of it. That’s the point, in the end, I think, of The Luminaries. It’s not about story at all. It’s about what happens to us when we read novels — what we think we want from them — and from novels of this size, in particular. Is it worthwhile to spend so much time with a story that in the end isn’t invested in its characters? Or is thinking about why we should care about them in the first place the really interesting thing? Making us consider so carefully whether we want a story with emotion and heart or an intellectual idea about the novel in the disguise of historical fiction… There lies the real triumph of Catton’s remarkable book.” (3)
I suspect Gunn is right in one way — the book is like a shaggy dog story. The whole shebang revolves around a dead body. Indeed I am still struggling to understand why Catton designated Terra Firma — our planet Earth — as a dead man. In astrology’s metaphysical wisdom, the cosmos, with all its planets, is alive and singing. I admit that the distillation of astrology’s symbolism into each character and scene creates a strangely detached puzzle that may appear ultimately to be without heart — for indeed lying at the centre is a dead man whose heart does not beat. So on one level the story indeed becomes “a great empty bag; an enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat.”
Yet if Terra Firma is symbolised as a dead body, then this idea does carry a moral and emotional weight. Earth, the dead centre, is exploited and murdered by Venus and Mars, and ignored by Jupiter and Saturn, who are engrossed in their own worldly squabbles of ambition and power. Maybe the author wants us to resuscitate the dead, empty centre, to rethink our attitudes toward our planet. She revives the Romance of the 19th century in style and substance, she re-animates our history in our quest for gold and greenstone, and reveals Crosbie Wells’ heart-breaking pleas for his brother to show some love (e.g., humanity). She carefully embeds an ancient, yet reviled, metaphysical knowledge that is at the heart of most Western cultural traditions into the foundations of her book and demands we read the story through its lens.
Is Catton intimating that perhaps our modern materialist version of Earth is a dead idea and needs to be restored? Reclaim the past to better re-view the future?
I don’t agree with Gunn that the story has no emotion or heart. The love story of the two luminaries, which ends and begins with the Old Moon in the Young Moon’s arms, is a heartfelt, even romantic, tale that is both old and new — and so worth reading!
(1) Man Booker Prize
(2) Eleanor Catton, September 24, 1985; London, Ontario, Canada.
(3) The Guardian
Bio: Fern Mercier is a professional Reader, teacher, consultant, writer, and educator in Astrology and Tarot. Auckland City, New Zealand is her home base. She has been practicing Astrology and Tarot for nearly 40 years. She has a Bachelor of Arts in history and English from Otago University (1968). Fern discovered Tarot in the early 1970s; her first deck of cards was a 16th-century woodcut reprint from the British Museum. She has taught at several national and international conferences and her writing has appeared in numerous publications. She is also a frequent guest on radio and TV. She presented “Tricks of the Trade – Lifting the Veil of the High Priestess” at the LETS Symposium in Sante Fe on the Day of the Dead in 2010. This was the first Tarot gathering to be available worldwide through a live-stream video webcast program. (If you’re interested in oracles, sibyls, and the history of the High Priestess, you can download her presentation here.)