The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

“Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the luminaries blueWhen Walter Moody, newly arrived in the New Zealand gold-rush town of Hokitika, enters the bar of the Crown Hotel, he doesn’t know at first that he is disturbing a meeting. Twelve of the town’s citizens, some prominent personages, some less so, have gathered to share all they know about a strange incident that has happened in the town, involving the death of one man, the disappearance of another and the mysterious appearance of some unaccounted-for gold. The twelve men fear that when these circumstances are investigated, each may be dragged in to the matter and so they have decided to try to get to the truth of the matter themselves. The book begins as they decide to take Moody into their confidence and tell him of all the events that have led them to be here on this night…

Winner of the 2013 Booker Prize, The Luminaries is a huge brick of a book, well over 800 pages, and with a cast of twenty major characters. So when I say that it didn’t just hold my attention throughout but actually kept me fully absorbed through almost two full weeks of reading, this is high praise indeed. And deserved praise, I think – Catton has achieved something quite remarkable in this book. The crime element has been much talked about, particularly since aficionados are so pleased to see a crime novel achieve such high recognition. But although the book is built round the investigation, the crime aspect is somewhat secondary – Catton’s real achievement is to create an utterly believable and incredibly detailed picture of the town, its citizens and the obsession with gold. And yet, despite the huge amount of descriptive writing, she keeps the action ticking along at enough of a pace – just – to stop the reader from feeling like she’s wallowing in a morass of detail.

Revell Street Hokitika c1866
Revell Street Hokitika c1866

Thomas Balfour’s heart was beating very fast. He was unused to the awful compression that comes after a lie, when it dawns upon the liar that the lie he has uttered is one to which he is now bound; that he must now keep lying, and compound smaller lies upon the first, and be shuttered in lonely contemplation of his own mistake. Balfour would wear his falsehood as a fetter, until the shipping crate was found.

The whole first half of the book is taken up with the twelve men telling their tale to Moody, and the second half follows the developments after that evening. There is a narratorial voice that takes over the telling in the third-person most of the time, which prevents this from becoming a stream of people talking. I’m reluctant to say an omniscient narrator, because I normally find that device awkward and annoying – this narrator is more of an interpreter and one doesn’t get that irritating feeling that the narrator knows more than is being told at any given point. The initial chapters are hugely lengthy and each gives the story as known by one or two of the twelve men in the room, so that the reader, along with the men themselves, is in the position of trying to match up all these stories and see how they fit together. Catton takes the time to tell us in tremendous detail about each man’s character, history, involvement with the others characters both present and absent; and as she does this, she gradually builds up a complete and rather mesmerising picture of this frontier town and how it works. The men we meet are from all strata of society – the banker, the newspaperman, the shipping-line operator, the prospectors, the Maori, the Chinamen. And we learn of what life is like in a place where women have not yet arrived in any numbers and where the few prostitutes are perhaps more highly valued for this rarity. There are very few female characters in the book for that reason, but they play a vital role both in the story and in giving a credible picture of the place of women in this almost entirely male society.

Hokitika township c1870 (
Hokitika township c1870

Reams have been written by hundreds of reviewers on the games Catton plays with the structure of the book. The highest compliment I can pay her is to say that these games, normally a particular hate of mine, didn’t detract in any way from my enjoyment of the book. Apparently each section is exactly half of the length of the section before, meaning that as the book progresses the chapters shorten and the action seems to speed up – by the end the chapter headings are nearly as long as the chapters. There is also a running (and rather pointless) thread about astrology throughout the structure, but were it not for the section headings and character lists I would probably have remained blissfully ignorant of that and would have lost nothing as a result. Some people have compared this to Dickens – it appears that any book longer than 600 pages is automatically considered Dickensian these days. As with The Goldfinch, I think that comparison lacks validity – although Catton does look at every aspect of society from high to low, the tone of the book remains fairly static without the layers of high farce and tragedy that Dickens normally introduces, and even the minor characters show none of the caricaturing of a Sairey Gamp or a Mr Micawber. That’s not to criticise – merely to say that Catton is not ‘doing a Dickens’; but the greater realism of this book works in its own context.

Shepard paused, forming his business in his mind. The pale light of the day, falling slantwise across Nilssen’s desk, froze the eddies of pipe-smoke that hung about his head – fixing each coiling thread upon the air, as mineral quartz preserves a twisting vein of gold, and proffers it. Nilssen waited. He was thinking: If I am convicted, then this man will be my gaoler.

The river port at Hokitika during the goldrush
The river port at Hokitika during the goldrush

The major female character is the prostitute, Anna Wetherell, and she is at the centre of the story. The scarcity of women means that she is an object of desire for many of the men in more than just a sexual sense, and though she is used and, to a degree, abused by some of the men, she is also respected and even loved by others. A fascinating character, we don’t get to see from her point of view until near the end, so that her personality is rather vague and indistinct for much of the novel; and slowly learning about her is as much part of the story as unravelling the crime at the heart of the book. Anna is an opium-eater and the dream-like feel of much of her part is echoed in an overall mildly dream-like quality to the story, which combined with the New Zealand setting to put me in mind of the Maori ‘Dreamtime’ traditions. Just occasionally the whole thing tips over into mild mysticism but the drugged feel of Anna’s story prevents this from causing too sharp an intake of breath from even this hardened realist.

Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton

The book is not perfect and it would be easy to pick flaws. It’s arguable whether the prostitutes of the town would have been treated as respectfully as they are here. The structure means that the early chapters are too long while the later ones are too short. The crime story is perhaps not strong enough to carry such a weight of words. But these criticisms are not ones that I was making as I read – the quality of the writing and storytelling was such that I found myself fully involved and willing to suspend my disbelief as and when required. And although it took me many chapters before I had got all the characters straight in my mind, I found that Catton was skilled enough to give me much needed reminders of who was who and how they fitted in at any point where it was all in danger of becoming too overwhelming. I swithered over 4 ½ or 5 stars, but given that I think the town of Hokitika and its gold-rush residents will stay with me for a long time, I’m going with 5 and highly recommending the book.

So…do I think it deserved to win the Booker? Tune in on Friday…

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55 thoughts on “The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

  1. FictionFan – There are some books like that, that keep you drawn in until the last page. I’m so glad you found this to be one of them. And it’s a tribute to such a young writer to have gotten the international recognition she’s gotten.

    • Yes, she did a remarkable job of holding my attention – not always easy to do! And certainly I think it’s unlikely I’d have read this if it hadn’t won the Booker, so these prizes still have the planned effect of sucking new readers into an author’s work…

  2. Very nuanced and clever review: you are so right about the Dickensian element – long does not mean Dickensian (and he wasn’t the only one to write long novels in the 19th century).

    • Thank you, MarinaSofia! I do get a bit fed up when everyone gets compared to Dickens – or indeed, compared to other great writers. It takes something away from the author’s own creativity and originality, I think – this book is Cattonian!

  3. Well you realise you WILL push me to risk my all (well a couple of weeks of my all) on this. I think the final push was the wonderful word swithered.

    It has been my reservations over her ‘games’ in the much shorter The Rehearsal’ which kept me hesitating – as well as the Matterhorn like aspect of the TBR pile. The Luminaries must take it to Kilimanjaro proportions.

    Well done. Congratulations on passing the finishing line with such good timing (eat your heart out Roger Bannister)

    • D’you know, even though I’m recommending it, I’m not at all sure whether you will enjoy it – but I’d love to hear your view of it anyway. You might get more out of the astrology/slightly mystical stuff than I – but it’s also possible it’ll make you spit and froth…and I’m brilliant at completely missing structural stuff and deep inner meanings, so I think that helped a lot! I wouldn’t call it a quick read, purely because of the length, but it was one of those that it was easy to read great chunks of in a sitting…

      • Do not do your deep inner meaning sense down FF. I think anything with layers has lots to reveal, and any reader is unlikely to get EVERYTHING. Not to mention, that we read the world from our own ‘deep inner meaning’ place, seeing what our own vision and experience will let us see.

        I all reminds me of a walk I once did in Greece, with someone who had a background knowledge of the ancient history of the area and the geology. So I saw things I would never have seen by myself – and meanwhile my interest in plants was seeing stuff he would not have seen.

        This will slightly back burn as I am in the middle of another very long read. To be followed by short and restful books, I think

        • Yes, interestingly even as I finished this one I had to fight a strong temptation to read it again straight away. I suspect that, once you know how the plot works out, it would be possible to pay more attention to all the other stuff – in fact, the plot is already fading a bit whereas the town has become a real place that I feel I have visited and know well. And other reviews tell me that the personalities of the twelve men in the room are related to the signs of the zodiac – I missed that completely (hardly surprisingly since the only sign I know anything about is my own – Leo – and even then totally superficially). Actually the characters (apart from Anna) all seemed like part of a whole more than totally distinct individuals – the whole being ‘how this society works’…

    • I think it’s the huge numbers of major characters that can make this one feel a bit overwhelming at times, rather than the length alone, but I found it well worth it. If you decide to read it, I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

  4. Great review. This has been sitting on my kindle now for a while; I need to read it. Personally, I loved the other Booker shortlisted book The Lowland (by the sound of it, it was much shorter, too).

    • Thanks, Ryan! It sat on my Kindle for months before I got around to it. Hmm..I wasn’t so keen on The Lowland, mainly because I would have preferred her to stay in India rather than take us to Rhode Island, but like all these books it seems to divide opinion. If you do get around to The Luminaries sometime, I’d love to hear what you think…

  5. So when I saw your post in my inbox, I made a cup of tea, grabbed a gluten-free oatmeal cookie, and settled myself into a comfy chair. All the better to enjoy the fireworks. Only to find that I’ve got to read this book! Yes, it’s sitting on my shelf and has been twittering and chattering at me for weeks. But after The Goldfinch disaster, I have been resisting mightily. There is no way I could dream of finishing it in two weeks, so it will have to wait for the slightly less scheduled days of summer. The Goldfinch took six weeks. Perhaps I could do this one in a month if I enjoy it more. Oh dear, the reading schedule. I’m turning into the white rabbit. Is there such a thing as dying from a TBR overdose?

    • Haha! So sorry about that! It was nothing like The Goldfinch except in length, and even then it was a much quicker read. Partly because I enjoyed it more, but also because it flowed better meaning I was happy to read it in bigger chunks. It only took me about half the time I spent on The Goldfinch overall.

      But although I enjoyed it and am highly recommending it, I suspect it’s another that it would be just as easy to hate as love. I really wasn’t sure till about a third of the way through – I was enjoying reading it, but feeling it could all turn into nothing in the end. But then I discovered I was totally absorbed – not so much in the plot, but in the way she was building up the place and time…

  6. I am about a quarter of the way through it… the introduction has been a bit of a slog so far and I agree that the structure with the long chapters at the beginning and the shorter parts towards the end are making the book feel a bit unbalanced. It’s still a book to admire though – it’s amazing that Catton won the Booker for this aged 27!

    • I wasn’t at all sure about it for the first third or so and then I found it really had hooked me and the rest didn’t feel like a slog from then on – so stick with it! The length of the early chapters were a bit off-putting though, and it meant it took me ages to get all the characters straight in my mind. I look forward to hearing what you think of it when you’re finished…

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

  7. I have The luminaries and Goldfinch on my bookshelf waiting to be read. I’m going to hear Eleanor Catton speak at the end of the month for Sydney Writers festival and I haven’t started it yet. Yipes!

    • Better start soon then! 😉 The Luminaries is definitely the one to choose out of those two – in my opinion, of course! And didn’t take quite as long to read as the size suggested because it flowed really well, I thought. Will you be blogging about the festival?

  8. Fantastic! Glad you enjoyed it which means I too will be embarking on The Luminaries. I’m glad to have read at least one good review of this book because I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be so much noise around it if it wasn’t worth it. As usual, great review! Funnily enough the Pulitzer people described The Goldfinch as Dickensian which struck me as a bit odd…I did enjoy it though 😀

    • Thanks Verity! I hope you enjoy it – I didn’t find the size as difficult to cope with in this one because it was easy to read in fairly big chunks. Yeah, the whole Dickensian thing really annoys me – I sometimes wonder if the people who make the comparisons have ever read any Dickens. I guess they just mean long and good but Dickens was so much more than that…and so are some of these authors they compare to him, but in a different way.

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