The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for being tempted


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The Independent Culture

Ailment: Tempted, being

Cure: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

As humans we are all too easily swayed by temptation, whether it's imbibing the contents of a dubious bottle labelled 'Drink Me', or enjoying our neighbour's flirtatious overtures just a touch too much. Sometimes these temptations are harmless; but often they lead us down tunnels, or into contact with down pillows, that we come to regret. Our novel cure today, itself riddled with temptations, will offer you multiple examples of the moment the finger beckons, and show you how to dig deep to find the strength to say no.

In Eleanor Catton's huge and multi-layered novel, characters are lured across treacherous oceans by a hunger for gold; are seduced by the dark, smoky forgetfulness of the opium den; and are confronted by the alluring presence of women trading sex – all satellites of the Antipodean gold rush. In this hard, exacting world, it's not necessarily in the power of the individual to control whether they fall prey to temptation. Because Catton has delicately laced notions of planetary dominion with those of free will; so that an individual's destiny is shaped both by astrology, and by their own foibles, flaws and desires.

So Anna Wetherall, "the whore" – who embodies first Sun, then Moon (for each character represents a planet and zodiacal influence, and their fates follow the real course of the stars in 1866) – is universally desired by everyone in Hokitika, New Zealand; but she herself falls victim to opium.

Reputedly, Catton plotted the fates of her protagonists with a copy of Sky and Telescope magazine at her side. How much say in their fates, then, did her characters have? Well, some. We won't reveal how the few we care about most emerge stronger, but they do. Spin for a while in this novel's orbit, then return to terra firma with a tighter grip on your own resolve.

'The Novel Cure, An A-Z of Literary Remedies' (Canongate, £17.99);