The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

In the midst of all the column inches generated by Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize win this week, there were two burning questions on my Twitter timeline: one, should I be bothered to read something 832 pages long? Two, is it all structure and no story. In short, the answers are yes and no.

The Luminaries opens with the arrival of Walter Moody in Hokitika, a gold mining town in New Zealand. It is the time of the gold rush when every man arrives believing he will make his fortune. Moody has had a dreadful crossing on a barque named Godspeed:

…Moody had witnessed an event so extraordinary and affecting that it called all other realities into doubt. The scene was still with him – as if a door had chinked open, in the corner of his mind, to show a band of graying light, and he could not know wish the darkness back again. It was costing him a great deal of effort to keep that door from opening further.

Having taken a room at The Crown Hotel, Moody has positioned himself in the smoking room in an attempt to calm himself. However…

Moody’s entrance had been something of a surprise to the twelve assembled men, who had taken considerable precautions to ensure that they would not be disturbed.

The twelve men assembled in that room are residents of Hokitika, there to discuss the apparent attempted suicide of Anna Wetherell, the local prostitute. The men assembled hold prominent positions in the town: banker, newspaperman, hotelier, goldfields magnate, chemist, shipping agent, justice’s clerk, hatter, chaplain, commission merchant, greenstone hunter and goldsmith. Each knows a different piece of information that they hope will help them to piece together the reasons as to what led Anna Wetherell to attempt suicide; where Emery Staines, prospector, has disappeared to; why and how Crosbie Wells, hermit, died, and what part Francis Carver, captain of Godspeed, has played in all of this.

During the first half of the novel, we sit in the smoking room alongside Walter Moody and learn about him as well as the rest of the cast. There is a lot of information to take in and, of course, we cannot expect all these men to be telling the whole truth. When we reach the novel’s midpoint, we are three weeks on; things begin to unravel and mysteries and crimes are solved.

I worried during my reading of the first half of the novel that there was too much information to hold in my head while reading – I found myself wishing I’d made much more detailed notes as to who did and said what. However, in the second half of the book, information came just as quickly but as it was looking at what we already knew and dissecting it, I realised my earlier concerns were unfounded. What also helped enormously was being aware of Catton’s interest in ‘box set TV’ and how she wanted to use the idea of the long character arch. This element worked very well and provided a sense of accomplishment at the end of the novel. I felt bereft knowing I’d no longer be spending time with these characters.

As for the structure in terms of the astrological elements of the book – if no one had mentioned them, I probably would have had very little awareness of them at all. Each section starts with the astrological chart for that period of time and includes the influences on the twelve male characters present in the smoking room in the first half of the novel. Catton says these are accurate for the time and that she used them to determine the character’s behaviour. Does it make the story read as though the author has a firm hand on events? No. It reads like a cracking good crime novel.

What is interesting about the structure though is the way it feeds into a theme of the novel: is our fate predetermined or does coincidence lead us along paths we otherwise would never have taken?

The Luminaries is a bold book. It demands we give it our sustained attention and pays us for it with a narrative drive so compelling I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough in the second half of the novel. I only hope that any requests for film rights are given short shrift and instead I’ll be spending time with the box set, watching the events unfold again.


Thanks to Little, Brown and Company US for the review copy.

19 thoughts on “The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

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  2. I love the concept of a novel as a ‘box-set TV series’ rather than a 90 minute film. Looking forwards to spending time with this one: your review has put my mind at rest, because I did have some concerns that it would be too formally structured or at least that the structure would impinge on the narrative drive… (However I do occasionally wish publisher would return to the Victorian-esque practice of issuing larger novels as two or three volume sets, because the single edition seems too large/ostentatious/heavy for either the bus or the bath…)


    • Three of my friends are current reading it – two of whom had concerns about the structure – and they’re loving it.

      I agree with your comment about the three volumes. The only one I can think of recently was Paul Murray’s ‘Skippy Dies’ but that was only limited edition. I tend to buy big books on Kindle but I daren’t take that in the bath!


  3. Well, I’ll have to read it now – excellent review! About to start The Goldfinch so it may be some time, though. I agree with ahostofaparrows – particularly difficult to read big fat novels in bed and hard to see how it will be possible to read it in paperback without breaking the spine.


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  6. Sadly I’ve read a number of reviews that have struggled with this book.
    Which is a pity because I loved it too. I loved the rich, wordy experience of it. I loved the gradual reveals and the mountains of information to sift through. It has its flaws (authentic period dialogue being one) but sometimes you love a book despite of (or because of) it’s imperfections 🙂


    • Hi Brona, yes me too although I can see why – you definitely need patience to make your way through the first half of the novel where holding all the information being given is a challenge!


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