I’d been meaning to read The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton ever since it won the Man Booker Prize last year but, if I’m honest, the size of the novel made me hesitate and, even though I knew I wanted to read it, I wanted to wait until I could give the novel the time it needed. When I was away in New Zealand, understandably I saw this book everywhere in bookshops and the library. My friend actually read the book when we were travelling and praised it highly, so I knew I wanted to read it soon. Plus, I thought it would be nice to read a book set in the country that I’d just spent time in, so when I got home I immediately got a copy of the book out of the library.
Walter Moody has travelled to New Zealand to make his fortune in the goldfields but, on the night he arrives, he unwittingly interrupts a secret meeting between twelve men who are discussing a series of strange events that have occurred in the town. An unexplained fortune has been found in the home of a hermit, a rich man has disappeared, and a whore has tried to end her life. Moody is, like readers, drawn into the mystery and soon discovers that everyone’s fates are vastly and intricately intertwined.
Catton has clearly meticulously mapped the book’s plot and intricately woven each characters’ story and their motivations and each turn of events through and around each other, leaving us with a vast and suspenseful, gripping tale where no thread is left unresolved. The Luminaries has a complex plot and I greatly admire Catton’s ability to keep all of these threads in complete control throughout the book. At times, particularly as you get further into the book, it can be difficult to keep track of everything that’s going on but Catton keeps a good balance between reminding us of certain information and not, meaning that the book isn’t unnecessarily repetitive.
The book is cyclical in nature – linking to the themes and imagery of the moon and astrology – and the end of the book rejoins the beginning. This works well, with the story slowly rising and expanding before reaching the plot’s height – where all the mystery gathers and we are desperate to find out more – before descending, revealing the turn of events, before we’re back where we started 832 pages before. Astrology plays a large part in the book and, having a very limited knowledge of the subject, I think certain aspects of the book unfortunately went over my head. I don’t think my lack of knowledge impeded my enjoyment of the book but I’m sure there are aspects whose significance has completely passed me by. I’d like to improve my knowledge in this area and then reread the book to unpick the structure and the astrological references.
With the book’s structure, it’s clear that Catton saw the novel in its entirety when writing, keeping in mind the overall structure and plot. But she also closes in on each individual character, perfectly marrying scope and detail – we don’t lose any detail at the expense of the book’s size. This is seen clearly with the characters in The Luminaries. Catton gives insightful and precise character descriptions and, in only a couple of sentences, I get the impression that she has a whole backstory penned out for these characters and knows them inside out.
Thinking about the book after finishing it, I’m in complete awe of what Catton has done with The Luminaries. It’s a vast novel which is gripping and compelling; it’s incredibly well written, with no word wasted; the style is completely in keeping with the time in which the book is set. I’ve been trying to work out what it is that kept me interested for so long. Is it the characters? The plot? The writing? I think it’s a combination of all these, but mostly it was the insatiable need to find out what had happened, to unpick the threads of this complex story. When reading, I couldn’t guess what was going to happen and I couldn’t predict where the story would go. But the book is written with such an assurance that you feel certain that all will be revealed.
The Luminaries is an extraordinary feat in storytelling and I highly recommend reading it. Don’t be put off by the size of the novel – give yourself time to get drawn into the book and the pages will fly by. While in New Zealand, my friend and I got talking to a librarian in a local library about the book and she recommended reading large chunks at a time to really get into the story, and I’d echo this statement. Give yourself the time to read the book, get involved in the characters’ lives, get immersed into the story and let it work its magic.
Have you read The Luminaries? What did you think?