Book Review: The Luminaries

Thursday 17 July 2014 by

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton, Granta, BookThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Published by Granta

It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the night of his 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 is arguably one of The Novels of 2014. Winner of the Man Booker prize, and hailed as one of the great works of literary fiction by critics, it encompasses – what is essentially – a mystery of astronomical proportions (see what I did there?)

Set in the late 1800s in goldrush New Zealand, we are introduced to twelve key figures, one investigator, six unwitting participants, and one deceased man at the centre of it all. If I even TRY to attempt to explain it too much further than that, then it will just get too confusing. Catton writes her novel based on the turning of the night sky – of stellar and astronomical predictions and characters. It’s a feat of eye-watering size, and Catton does it with astounding ease, leaving you quite breathless.

The mystery is a mystery-within-a-mystery – missing men, missing fortunes, and the impressive Anna Wetherell, a prostitute who is accused of trying to commit suicide. As a character, Anna is rather tragic, yet she burns brighter for it. There is a certain power with Anna, and it occurs time and time again as each character steps to the front of the stage to tell their story. But if I’m honest, it is Anna who holds my attention (I have a certain fondness for Emery Staines and Cowell Devlin by the end, and Lydia Wells is a pure joy to read whatever she does).

This is an enormous read, at an aching 832 pages, but each page is considered and used brilliantly – nothing goes to waste, and nothing extra is added. Catton’s writing itself is as magnetic as Anna – the characters are distinct from one another (which is ideal, if you want to keep track of them all) and the setting comes to life with every word. Having only visited New Zealand once, it was remarkable how quickly it comes back with this book. Much of New Zealand is still protected and relatively untouched, and so it is not hard to step away from the road for a moment and find yourself in the middle of an environment that these hapless characters may well have found familiar.

I was under the impression that this was the first of Catton’s wonders, but it turns out she has written another (it’s my mission to get me a copy). Whatever you say about the Man Booker, it is no wonder that The Luminaries won. It is an indescribable novel – both baffling and illuminating, tense and meandering. The ending is a swift sigh (as opposed to the monologue it begins with) that finishes what is one of the more breathtaking novels I have read this year. It is neither the ending you would expect, nor the ending that fits with the beginning, but over the course of the novel, it becomes inevitable. I have finished this book with the feeling I am not even close to plumbing its depths, and have already put it next to my bed to re-read.

If you are daunted by the prospect of a novel built around the zodiac, don’t be – each part (gradually reducing in size) is divided by a chart you can refer to, and in truth for this read I simply let the story happen, and I don’t think it lost anything (though it has much to gain if you can stick with it). Perhaps on the next round I will pay closer attention to the structure.

Frances and Amy (of Franny & Perks fame) are massive fans of this novel, convincing me to make the attempt, and I am ever grateful (you can read Amy’s review of it here). I know I have waxed lyrical about other books on the blog recently (not least over the course of June’s Summer Reads), but if anything, this book outshines them all, and I insist you read it!

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1 Comment

  1. I’m so pleased you’ve read it and that you enjoyed it just as much as we did! Each time I think about it I am in awe. What a book! xx


  1. November’s Bookclub Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North | House of Blog - […] did wonder how they would follow The Luminaries, but The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a worthy…

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