Review: The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

“It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields.  On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes.  A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk.  Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.”

The Luminaries

I must have spent as long anticipating reading this book as I did actually reading it. A.K.A., a long time.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries was recommend by friends (“It’s great, but it really could have done with a good edit”) and critics (Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize) alike, and I had been looking forward to reading it for a long time before I finally picked up its hefty 800+ pages (metaphorically, of course. I have a Kindle), and began to read.

Catton’s prose are old-fashioned, intricate and instantly classic. With each turn of the page I felt increasingly more as if I were reading a Victorian-esque Dickens’ novel and it was impressive to see how fluently and easily Catton could utilise and retain such a style. Her characters are brought to life through a series of such intelligent and detailed observations, that I began to wonder just how she managed to create so many well-formed and fully-rounded human beings. There are simply so many characters, and each of them of equal importance to the storyline, that I found it difficult to keep up with who’s who, and even by the end I found myself often wracking my brain to try and remember a certain’s person significance or role. (I believe that there is a character list at the beginning but it is not so easy to access in eBook format.) This only fuelled my admiration for Catton, however, and says a lot more about my poor memory than the authenticity of her characters. The people she has written about are as richly drawn and as uniquely interesting as any of the great works of literature.

And so with the discussion of the narrative style and the characters over, in the time-wearied tradition of all averagely written book reviews, I suppose I must now speak a little about the plot. The Luminaries’ storyline is incredibly clever and convoluted, at least for someone with my attention span and lack of literary foresight. And because of the repeated skipping backwards and forwards in time, and the multi-character narrative, after 800 pages I’m still not entirely convinced I could piece together what exactly happened. I think that’s part of the point, however. It is a mystery story with so many layers and creases, and it’s told through so many voices and lenses, that it takes a while to iron out the distortions and to really comprehend what happened. That is, most definitely, where Catton best succeeds. Written during her mid-twenties and now only at the tender age of 28 (I say that being myself an even tenderer age), I feel as if Catton is someone I can simultaneously aspire to, and use as a reason to despair over my own literary prowess. Because if The Luminaries has affected me in any way, it’s been to thoroughly concern me that somebody only a few years older, can achieve so much and can write such an intelligent and effective novel.

I’d also like to just briefly touch upon the book’s supernatural and astrological aspects, much of which I have more questions about than answers. Catton incorporates a number of astrological charts, depicting each of the twelve men as a different star sign, and signifying as such that they are all equally interdependent, entangled, and that their actions and decisions are perhaps sometimes left to a fate beyond us. I have to admit that I didn’t quite understand all the nuances of this frame of reference, and the frequent alllusions to various types of moons and stars as affecting the plot quite often went right over my head. I did, however, appreciate the few elements of the supernatural which are mentioned, but never quite fully explained. Moody’s initial encounter with a ‘ghost’, the mysterious ‘disappearing’ bullet, and Anna and Emery’s strange, interconnected existence and dependence upon one another all hint at something beyond the realm of reality and normality, and certainly added a new layer to an already complex and saturated plot.

Setting out to emulate both the style and characters of the great nineteenth-century writers, Catton thoroughly succeeds with The Luminaries. It’s immensely detailed, it’s frighteningly vast and it’s supremely clever, and it will, I’m sure, be only the beginning of a celebrated literary career for Eleanor Catton. Bravo, bravo. Now to go and cry in a corner…

“For although a man is judged by his actions, by what for he has said and done, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done – a judgement that is necessarily hampered, not only by the scope and limits of his imagination, but by the ever-changing measure of his doubt and self-esteem.”


  1. thebookishuniverse · · Reply

    Okay. Love your writing style and the way you make your reviews. I love your blog. I might love you haha

    1. Haha, thanks! I love your blog too! Thanks for all the lovely comments.

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