Book extract: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

By Eleanor Catton

New Zealand novelist Eleanor Catton. Photo / Sarah Ivey
New Zealand novelist Eleanor Catton. Photo / Sarah Ivey

New Zealand author Eleanor Catton's novel The Luminaries is one of six shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, with the winner will be announced at a ceremony in London on Wednesday morning (AEST time).

Catton's 823-page book has been described as a "Kiwi Twin Peaks" - an astrological mystery set in 1866 Hokitika. Here is the first chapter of the novel:

Chapter One: Mercury In Sagittarius
In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika; a secret council is disturbed.

The twelve men congregated in the smoking-room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. For all their variety of comportment and dress - frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill - they might have been twelve strangers on a railway-car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway - deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.

Such was the perception of Mr Walter Moody, from where he stood in the doorway with his hand upon the frame. He was innocent of having disturbed any kind of private conference, for the speakers had ceased when they heard his tread in the passage; by the time he opened the door, each of the twelve men had resumed his occupation (rather haphazardly, on the part of the billiard-players, for they had forgotten their places) with such a careful show of absorption that no-one even glanced up when he stepped into the room.

The strictness and uniformity with which the men ignored him might have aroused Mr Moody's interest, had he been himself in body and temperament. As it was, he was queasy and disturbed. He had known the voyage to West Canterbury would be fatal at worst, an endless rolling trough of white water and spume that ended on the shattered graveyard of the Hokitika bar, but he had not been prepared for the particular horrors of the journey, of which he was still incapable of speaking, even to himself. Moody was by nature impatient of any deficiencies in his own person - fear and illness both turned him inward - and it was for this reason that he very uncharacteristically failed to assess the tenor of the room he had just entered.

Moody's natural expression was one of readiness and attention. His grey eyes were large and unblinking, and his supple, boyish mouth was usually poised in an expression of polite concern. His hair inclined to a tight curl; it had fallen in ringlets to his shoulders in his youth, but now he wore it close against his skull, parted on the side and combed flat with a sweet-smelling pomade that darkened its golden hue to an oily brown. His brow and cheeks were square, his nose straight, and his complexion smooth. He was not quite eight-and-twenty, still swift and exact in his motions, and possessed of the kind of roguish, unsullied vigour that conveys neither gullibility nor guile. He presented himself in the manner of a discreet and quick-minded butler, and as a consequence was often drawn into the confidence of the least voluble of men, or invited to broker relations between people he had only lately met. He had, in short, an appearance that betrayed very little about his own character, and an appearance that others were immediately inclined to trust.

Moody was not at all unaware of the advantage his inscrutable grace afforded him. Like most excessively beautiful persons he had spent many hours gazing at his own reflection, and in a way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior. He had passed a great many hours in the alcove of his private dressing room, where the mirror tripled his image into profile, half-profile, and square: Van Dyck's Charles, though a good deal more striking. It was a private practice, and one he would likely have denied - for how roundly self-examination is condemned, by the moral prophets of our age! As if the self had no relation to the self, and one only looked in mirrors to have one's arrogance confirmed; as if the act of self-regarding was not as subtle, fraught, and ever-changing as any bond between twin souls. In his fascination Moody sought less to praise his own beauty than to master it. Certainly whenever he caught his own reflection, in a window-box, or in a pane of glass after nightfall, he felt a thrill of satisfaction - but as an engineer might feel, chancing upon a mechanism of his own devising and finding it splendid, flashing, properly oiled, and performing exactly as he had predicted it should.

He could see his own self now, poised in the doorway of the smoking-room, and he knew that the figure he cut was one of perfect composure. He was near trembling with fatigue; he was carrying a leaden weight of terror in his gut; he felt shadowed, even dogged; he was filled with dread. He surveyed the room with an air of polite detachment and respect.

- NZ Herald

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