The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

So although it’s a day later than initially planned, I did finish the big tome I’ve been working through for the last month. And, of course, this post is a day later still.(1)

Considering how far off-schedule I am for these reading challenges, it almost seems futile to list what categories different books cover. Almost.

I’m not gonna beat myself up for how far off the mark I end up being come December 31, and I’m not gonna try crazy book bingo stuff to check off more categories. Despite that new “lazy gal’s” approach to reading challenges, I still want to be able to go back at the end of the year and see which categories I covered and which I didn’t.

So, in that spirit:

  • Around the Year #14: Title, cover, or subtitle related to an astronomical term.
  • PopSugar #33: With a zodiac sign or astrology term in the title.

I’m also amused to note that this is the second Booker prize-winner I’ve read in a row. Aren’t I so very cultured?

While I’m on the topic of the Booker prize, let me get a few other data points out of the way: this is the longest novel to win the award, and Catton is the youngest author ever to win it—she was 27 when the novel was finished and published. If you, like me, are part of the “when Mozart was my age….” club, feel free to take a moment to breathe into any insecurity you may feel about the quality of your own creative contributions to the world. Here, I’ll wait.

Close-up on the book cover of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Feeling more grounded? Then let’s get on to the book review.

Catton’s novel is a very 21st century imitation of a 19th century novel. The traditions of 19th century novel seep through every fiber of the narrative, which involves a veritable panoply of POV characters who cross and re-cross paths with one another in ways that defy credulity.(2) The story begins with young Walter Moody’s arrival in the New Zealand gold rush town of Hokitika, upon checking into the second-best hotel in town, young Mr. Moody accidentally stumbles into a secret council of 12 locals who have gathered to piece together their fragmentary experiences to solve a mystery involving death, disapperance, theft, impersonation, betrayal, addiction, and more secrets and half-spoken truths than you could shake a gold nugget at. Moody not only becomes the interlocutor piecing together this puzzle picture, he turns out to have a key piece or two of his own, without which the picture would have remained imcomplete. Again: very 19th century.

There is also a lot of fun had by Catton regarding the stylistyinc features of 19th century novel. The vocabulary is intricate, the descriptions are illuminatingly detailed, all as voiced by an omnsicient-yet-very-secretive narrative voice that is as arch as one might expect from the archest of Austen or Eliot’s novels.(3) Each chapter also begins with its own descriptive subtitle, a trick I am sorely tempted to steal for subsequent blogposts.

But Catton also has some very modern fun(4) with these 19th century tropes. Each of the 12 sections of the book is half as long as the section that preceded it, a formal arrangement that is well-aligned with the waning-moon design of the book’s cover and with all the astrological chit-chat that certain characters bring into the texture. More astrological symbolism is provided by the detailed astrological charts that begin each section–charts that, according to the author’s note, were excessively well-researched. I’m assuming, as well, that these carefully-detailed star charts are symbolically meaningful, but I didn’t want to do the amount of research that would have been necessary for me to unpack all that.

Perhaps the most 21st century feature of the book is the ouroboros emptiness of all the plot twists and revelations, when all is said and done. The book’s originally timeline, in 1866, culminates in a dramatic court case in which a barrister offers a plausible explanation for how all these fragments of mystery could have fit together. Then the book jumps back several months into 1865, to show you what really happened. But there’s no real point to it. The contrast between speculated narrative and flashback narrative isn’t meaningful. Instead the chapters get shorter and shorter, and the descriptive subtitles get longer and more self-indulgent, until the novel ends almost—but not quite—back where it started.

The best way I have to describe The Luminaries concisely is to call it a great, big, glorious MacGuffin of a book. And I’m not saying that to complain, because I really did enjoy it. I’m just trying to capture how such a heavy literary meal could turn out to feel so airy and empty, when all is said and done.


(1) One more thing to call right now: Sunday nights will be blogging nights off till GoT is done. (Which, depending on the death toll, may be as early as next week pour moi.)

(2) Luckily for all of us, credulity isn’t really a key feature of these overstuffed, over-peopled 19th century novels—or their 21st century reinterpretations.

(3) George, of course, not T.S.

(4) Post-modern? Are we still there, or have we moved on to post-postmodern, or pre-plus-modern?


Image credit: Photo taken by the author, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

One thought on “The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

  1. Pingback: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – Self-Love: It's Just Another Lifestyle Change

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