The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

A Book Review

This hefty 832 page book won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. Its cover-art is serene, the title in gold, the painted image of a woman, whose face wanes in the shape of a moon until it is a slim crescent. It took me over a fortnight to plough through it. And so I will try my best to keep these thoughts on such a large novel to a minimum because I’m afraid my inner ramblings are not nearly as exciting as Catton’s words.

Set in the 19th New Zealand gold rush, in a small town called Hokitika a council of 13 men come together on a rainy night to discuss the looping fragments of the peculiar things happening amongst them; the richest man in town has disappeared, a lady of the night has attempted to end her life and a plain old man has died and left behind him a mysteriously large sum of money. Each man tries to wriggle around pieces of the truth to see where they fit.

Catton has weaved astrology throughout the novel (you don’t need to know a single thing about it to read the story though so don’t fret), embedding her characters within the stars- each part is meticulously paged to be exactly half of the other, and every movement her characters make means something. 

The bulk of the novel though large is tempting. Each page pulls you further into the conspiracy and I spent many times on the bus having no shame as I pulled out the brick of a book onto my lap and flicked through it simply because I had to know what happened next.

Another appeal of this novel is that it reads like a period drama. The dialogue is sharp and brings to life each person, and Catton’s style here is lush and patterned as she introduces each character with a precise insight into the core of their beings. This is with the exception of the wealthy Emery Staines and lady of the night Anna Wetherell, who we are given insight to much later in the novel.

The Luminaries I found is, alas, not without its flaws.

In all honesty this novel is stuffed- stuffed with plot, a large number of characters to follow, themes of revenge, murder and politics, and a story simmering below all that’s written on page. I enjoyed it though, I liked being somewhere else, I liked trying to figure out who’s motive were what and where the next word would leave me. But it’s stuffed, just like a lovely golden turkey. Perhaps too much for some.

Aside from its many ingredients, from the start to the climax, this novel promises mystery. Until we reach towards the end where the mystery fizzles and a sort of magic is weaved into the narrative, revealing that this is in fact a novel about love. I will admit that I did suffer from some whiplash by page 831. The mystery that smelled so delicious became almost stale, answers not quite baked, made to be a summary at the start of a chapter about the lovers. I closed the book in a bit of confusion.

Saying this, I’ve seen that people regard The Luminaries as pretentious with little wow factor. “It’s too dense,” they’ve said. I’ve seen it rated ⅖ stars. To that, I don’t agree. Not really.

I see the dedication Catton has put in her novel. Her writing shines and her reveals are mostly well paid off. I found the characterisation intriguing and almost ingenious in how it portrayed exactly the dramatised and classic movements a dignified and pompous man of the 19th century might have; it’s always a treat when a scene as mundane as breakfast is written with both charm and life. 

Overall, The Luminaries is ambitious, crafted with care, and to me, worth the read, since the journey I took was pleasurable enough to forgive its abrupt end and many mix ins. The great things in this world outweigh any other sentiment of distaste. 

The Luminaries has been chosen to be adapted by the BBC as a drama. A few cast members such as Eva Green (Penny Dreadful, Casino Royale) have been announced already and it means to be a promising watch. I’m very excited to see what Chinese actors will be announced to play Ah Sook and Ah Quee, and what gentleman will play the Native New Zealander Te Rau Tauwhare. Here’s hoping this adaption will answer some pondering questions, and launch some big names in an industry with not enough men that aren’t just white.

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