Review. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

 The Luminaries might just be the best book I've ever read. The Luminaries won the 2013 Man Booker Prize and while I'm not normally one to be caught up in the hype of a book that's won awards, my friend gave it to me for my birthday and suggested we read it together. However my birthday was in October and I was finally "allowed" to crack open the book after Christmas and boy am I glad I did. The story is both beautifully and intelligently constructed so that the reader is drawn into the story chapter by chapter. Before you know it, you are barreling headfirst into a world long since relegated to the history books. English majors, this might be just the book for you. So, just be warned, you need your thinking caps on while reading.

From Goodreads:

It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute 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 ornate as the night sky.

Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bus, The Luminaries is a brilliantly constructed, fiendishly clever ghost story and a gripping page-turner. It is a thrilling achievement for someone still in her mid twenties, and will confirm for critics and readers that Eleanor Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament.

Check after the jump as to why I think this book was compelling reading. Mild spoilers.

A man walked into a bar.......Enter Walter Moody.

Twelve men assemble in a bar on January 27, 1866 in Hokitika and are surprised when one Walter Moody, a recent arrival from Scotland, walks in. Gradually their story unfolds as they seek Walter's opinion.

The story revolves around what happened on the night Crosbie Wells died. Was he murdered? Did he die of natural causes? Who visited him on that fateful night? There are numerous suspects, one missing, one addicted to opium, one clear villain and many other characters who act in a manner which may not be quite above-board. It is clear as the story unravels before us that there is a definite favourite to the title of murderer, if it was indeed murder. Yet like an onion, the layers of the story are slowly revealed to us, as each character discloses their side of the story. As the story is told by numerous narrators, we are given observations and facts that another narrator neglected or forgot to relay to us. And thus another layer is shown. Each character has their own motivations for how they acted from the point in time that Crosbie Wells was located dead to the time the mystery is solved.  It's how they acted afterward that would help lead us to what really happened.

Running along side this plot is the case of Anna Wetherell and Emery Staines. What happened to them on the night in question? Anna was found senseless on the side of the road and Staines is missing.  It is the missing Staines that our characters are intent on finding, for they sense that he holds the clue to the mystery. Staines is a wealthy man in Hokitika and thus this is part of the drive for locating him.  

On Eleanor Catton

Deciding to the read The Luminaries was an interesting step for me. I often shy away from books that are in-depth. Perhaps this is my own insecurity in thinking that I won't understand what the hell is going on.  I should not have been afraid. Catton weaves a story that is both intricate and compelling. She deftly weaves the web of her story, tightly pulling the strands together, so when you close the final page, you leave satisfied that Catton has relayed a story to you that you both understood and that solved the burning issues raised early in the novel.

It is true that Catton is an academic and perhaps this, in part, explains how beautifully written the book is. Thought is put into character descriptions, from what they look like, to what they wear, to their mannerisms and finally how each character has their own "voice" in relaying the events on a wet and wild January night. (Note that January is summer time in New Zealand but the barrier of the Southern Alps and the brutal Tasman Sea make this part of New Zealand receive a high rainfall.) The landscape of Hokitika is brought vividly to life. So much so that you can taste the mud, feel the never-ending rain, breathe the goldfields, sense the fury of the Hokitika sandbar and the brutality that lies in this harsh frontier. Here is land where men make their fortunes and lose them. This is no paved city, this is a town rising up from the mud on dreams of gold. Plus it rains a lot!!!!

The book is also a bit of a social commentary on life in Victorian New Zealand. Let's not forget that this is only twenty six years after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed (our founding document so-to-speak in a European sense). New Zealand is now a colony of England and immigrants are arriving to seek a new life. Already South Island Maori have had their land robbed taken from them for a few blankets and assorted other items. Then gold is discovered and the landscape in the South Island is forever changed. This is a land which has had a large influx of people from the goldfields of the United States and from further south in Otago. 

Now I'm not the most thought provoking reader as I've stated above. I haven't read many books that have won awards or been on bestseller lists. That's just not how I roll. Perhaps the attraction of this book is that is relatable to the past of the country I live in. Perhaps the attraction is that Catton was able to make me relate to her characters and the story she was telling me. I'm not sure. But I'm going to give Catton's other book The Rehearsal a read as well, to see if I enjoy it just as much.

Astrology also plays a central role in the novel. If you understand astrology and the movement of the planets in relation to star signs and birth dates and times then I'm sure you will love this book.  Twelve men meet in a bar and there are twelve zodiac signs. Each man in the bar represents one of the zodiac signs. The book is also divided into twelve parts to keep in tune with the zodiac. Catton deftly combines the zodiac with her tale and it helps to show how each character is interrelated. Of course the title gives away that the book is tied to astrology in that luminaries can mean the sun and the moon. Meaning for luminaries:

 "An object, such as a celestial body, that gives light". 1

I don't completely understand the zodiac myself and if I did I think the story would have been even more compelling than it already was for me.

If you want to know a little more about astrology in the book there is a great article at the link below. It explains astrology and the work far better than I could.

Mountain Astrologer

The book isn't for everyone. If you have a policy of reading 50 pages of a book and then if it doesn't grab you, the book is consigned to your Did Not Finish pile, then you might be disappointed. If you persevere and allow the story to evolve than you are in for a treat. By around 200 pages I was completely invested in how the story would end. Catton was able to make me not afraid to read a "thinking" book and for that I am eternally grateful.

Best discovery so far of 2014 and the year has only just started. I can't wait to see what Catton writes next. One thing is for sure, I'll be buying whatever she is writing. Don't be afraid to pick up this book, you might be pleasantly surprised, that well written and constructed works can still be found in the literary world today.

Do you know anything about astrology? What books have you read that make you feel like were really within the pages as the story is revealed before your eyes?


  1. Wow, Angela, this book sounds wonderful! I already put it on my e-reader!! Thank you for letting me know about it...I had never heard of it.

    1. You are welcome Kathi. You recommend so many great books to me, so it's lovely to recommend one to you. It's a real thinking book and I'm sure you won't be disappointed.


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