Review: The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries Eleanor Catton review

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton
Granta, 2014

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?



29 thoughts on “Review: The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

    • Glad I’ve encouraged you to read it 🙂 Like you say, if you’ve got some time over Christmas it might be a good time to start. I’d love to know what you think of it if you do get round to reading it!

  1. I’ve been meaning to read this for so long, but I think like so many people, I find the size to be quite intimidating. Reading your review really makes me want to devote more time to it though – Catton’s writing sounds so intricate! Hoping to put this top of my to read list! 🙂

    • I’m so glad I’ve encouraged you to put it to the top of your to-read list 🙂 I was really daunted by the size of the book but, having read it now, I think it’s really worth devoting time to it. I hope you enjoy it if you get round to reading it – I’d love to know what you think of it 🙂

  2. I’m still in two minds about The Luminaries, but I have to admit that I was grateful whenever characters provided a helpful summary of the intricate, tangled stories. Although I still have a few problems with it, there’s no doubt that I was pulled along by the narrative, desperate to find out what the conclusion was. I also liked that she gave readers the choice of two explanations for events, both of which are impossible in different ways. Great review!

  3. I think this is book that works on two (possibly three) different levels. The narrative and characters are so strong that it can be read and enjoyed on a pure ‘storytelling’ level (for want of a better phrase), The astrological aspect and the novel’s structure can serve as additional layers, extra dimensions. Like you, I think I’d like to reread and unpick this novel at some point but with the benefit of a deeper understanding of the planetary principles and charts. An amazing book.

  4. Great review! I also loved this one. For me, it was the town as much as the characters – I actually felt, and still feel, that I’ve been there. And it also put me in mind of the Maori Dreamtime traditions – I felt there was a real sense of the story being like a communal imagining the characters were sharing. I didn’t miss not getting the astrological stuff – I felt Catton’s real skill was in writing the book with such a weird structure and yet not allowing the structure to get in the way of the reader’s pleasure. One of the few worthy Booker winners…

  5. I was the same – super intimidated by its size, and so I put off reading it until I was on holidays so I would be able to give it my proper attention and be able to read it for long stretches. I freaking loved it – Catton is a genius. I still marvel at how well she put it all together – it’s one of those books that I still think about, and I would love to reread it, if it wasn’t so damn big! 🙂

  6. Thanks for this review. It’s impressive to hear that despite it’s size it seems to remain compelling throughout.
    I too have the Luminaries sitting on my bookshelf. I’m going to Amsterdam for a week after Christmas and was thinking of taking a ‘big’ book with me so this might be the one.

  7. Glad I’ve found your blog as I really enjoyed reading this review. I am a bit scared to read this for some reason as I feel it will be a hard slog. But it does sound like it’s worth it so maybe it’s one for me to try out in 2015.

    • Ah thank you! I understand what you mean – I was intimidated by just how long this novel was! But I’d say it’s definitely worth it and I enjoyed it so much that it didn’t feel hard going. Hope you enjoy it if you do try it out – let me know what you think 🙂

  8. What I think is that I agree with every word you said. Your reaction is similar to how mine was, it’s staggering isn’t it the focus and the scope married to that remarkable structure, and all of it working together?

    The size and the structure make it seem somewhat forbidding, but it isn’t at all is it?

    Anyway, thanks for alerting me to your review. Great stuff.

    • Thank you! I completely agree, it all works together remarkably. It’s been a little while since I finished reading the book, but I still find myself thinking about it.

  9. Pingback: A Year in Books: 2014 | The Perfectionist Pen

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