The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The LuminariesWhilst wondering last month when I was ever going to read ‘The Luminaries’, a thought suddenly occurred to me: what better time to start reading an 800+ page book than the beginning of up to five days of London Underground strikes? I have an eBook copy of Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning epic novel and I tend to use my Kindle when bad weather, industrial action or some other disruption is likely to severely delay my commute to work. An e-reader is easier to hold on a crowded train than a large hardback book and if I get stranded somewhere for a long time and I finish a novel, I have several more to choose from right there and then.

In the end, it took just under eight return journeys between Essex and North London and a bank holiday weekend for me to read ‘The Luminaries’. Set in New Zealand  in the 1860s, the novel opens with Walter Moody setting out to make his fortune in the gold mining town of Hokitika.  He meets a group of twelve men who are attempting to solve the mysteries of some unexplained events, namely the death of a hermit called Crosbie Wells, the attempted suicide of Anna Wetherell, the mysterious disappearance of Emery Staines and the location of five dresses with a fortune of gold stitched into them.

As with Donna Tartt’s 770 page novel ‘The Goldfinch‘ which I read between Christmas and New Year, the one thing you cannot ignore about either of these books is their considerable size. Overall, I would say it’s best not to start reading ‘The Luminaries’ half-heartedly. It’s difficult to dip in and out sporadically of any long novel and this one is no exception. While ‘The Goldfinch’ goes more or less straight into the action, the opening of ‘The Luminaries’ is very slow with a vast amount of background information and a large cast of main characters. I would advise readers to set aside a fair amount of time to get through the lengthy descriptions of these characters and how they are intricately connected.

As well as its length, the structure of ‘The Luminaries’ based on astrology has also been widely commented on. The book is divided into twelve parts associated with the signs of the zodiac and the twelve main characters with each part being half the length of the previous one. Before reading it, I had wondered if the quality or pace of the story would suffer at the expense of Catton attempting to stick to this rigid pattern whereby characters come and go according to planetary movements. While it has the effect of making the book feel rather unbalanced with the first of twelve parts taking up nearly half of the book and the final part comprising of just a few short paragraphs, I would say that although it is complex and non-linear, the structure here is at least slightly more coherent and definitely more confidently executed than that of Catton’s debut novel ‘The Rehearsal‘.

There is a helpful summary of events at the end of Part One where it is acknowledged that: “Balfour’s narrative, made somewhat circuitous by interruption, and generally encumbered by the lyrical style of that man’s speech, became severely muddled in the telling, and several hours passed before Moody finally understood with clarity the order of events that had precipitated the secret council in the hotel smoking room.” In other words, it’s been a bit of a slog so far. Fortunately, after reaching this important milestone, the pace picks up and the story becomes a bit easier to grasp. On the other hand, I still felt that the structure of ‘The Luminaries’ remained a distraction from the story itself which is unfortunate as the writing is consistently excellent and there is much to be admired stylistically. In particular, the nineteenth century voice is very convincing and the courtroom scenes are highly compelling to read.

‘The Luminaries’ is undoubtedly a very cleverly constructed novel. More often than not, however, I would say that the ambitious structure hinders rather than helps ‘The Luminaries’ in terms of the actual experience of reading it. Whether you gave up after 200 pages or finished the entire novel (either through sheer determination or genuine enjoyment), I am interested in hearing your thoughts.


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38 responses to “The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

  1. I got halfway and gave up. You have some stamina 🙂


    • George Popovic

      |The astrological content of the novel seems, and probsbly is, obscure ant entirely irrelevant.Waded through the 800-page behemoth and feel no better for ir.


  2. yasmine rose

    I genuinely enjoyed the experience of reading Catton’s novel, perhaps because I didn’t really know too much about the astrological chart which orders the narrative. Like you I found the nineteenth century voice very convincing. I also loved how cleverly thought out it was – it must have taken an incredible amount of planning!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. hls

    I’ve seen so many people talk about this book, but each time I pick it up and read the synopsis I feel uninspired by the plot and the writing.


  4. I haven’t read The Luminaries – I have to admit the length has put me off so far and I want to be able to devote enough time to the book in order to read it properly. But the novel does sound really interesting, especially its structure.


  5. It took me 2 weeks to read 46 pages. It’s now a pretty doorstop:) I didn’t finish :/


  6. I thought that The Luminaries had more literary heft and better character development than The Goldfinch. However I found the astrological charts diverting and confusing.


  7. sylviemarieheroux

    I loved the story and did not pay much attention to the charts. I greatly enjoyed the description of the frontier town lifestyle. I work in the mining industry and I am always looking for books that relate to the development of the industry, its local impact and the characters involved in it, be it fiction or nonfiction. This book was definitely worth it for me. I am not put off by size. In fact, a friend of mine often makes fun of the large books I read…


  8. Going to start this evening. It looks formidable. I read that it’s similar to the Victorian Sensation novels. Having just read and enjoyed ‘The Woman in White’ I’ll be interested to see how they compare.


    • Jennifer

      I loved The Luminaries, and Woman in White is an old favorite of mine. But I would say Luminaries is more of a literary experiment that pays homage to sensation novels. Both its goals and its focus are different. But don’t that stop you from giving it a go!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I loved it – which surprised me, since I wasn’t really expecting to. I ignored all the astrological mumbo-jumbo and felt I missed nothing important by doing so, and the structural game-playing didn’t irritate me as much as I thought it would. The joy for me was in the words rather than the story, and in the way she gradually built up such a detailed picture of the town that I actually feel as if I’ve been there…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I loved it as well, I’m almost at the end and I think the fact that I listened to it on audiobook rather than read the actual book made the length much more tolerable for me. It was so funny, complicated in a clever way (is there a literary term for this? like a complicated caper where everyone gets confused), smart, and authentic regarding how people see themselves and others. i think i would have struggled more with the book version, but i can understand why the length was necessary for the story.


    • I think I would have struggled with it as an audiobook as I like to go back and look at character lists etc but I can understand how it would have made the length more tolerable!


      • Yes that was the downside, sometimes it was like, “Wait, what is going on? Who is talking right now?” It was almost too much to keep track of on audiobook. I wish they would include the front parts of books with audiobooks automatically as .pdf’s–any maps, character lists, or anything else like that.


  11. I have not read it yet but it’s on my potential to-read list. The plot hasn’t interested me enough to purchase it. Unfortunately, it’s on the 7 day shelf at my library (ha!) so I may wait until we move it to regular circulation.


  12. So, you are saying that there is a summary at the end of Part !. If I make another attempt to read this book then that is where I will start, at the summary, read to the end, then if the penny has started to drop I’ll go back and slog through Part ! Bit I do enjoy reading what other people have thought of it.


  13. mushypeasonearth

    I absolutely adored it and read it in just a few days as I got completely absorbed by it. Someone else told me they couldn’t really get into it at the beginning but then it picked up for them, but I just loved it from the outset. I loved the ‘Dickensian’-esque style which avoided being pastiche but felt genuinely like a proper Victorian novel with more accessible language. My review on my blog:


  14. Even though I didn’t finish The Luminaries, i think i agree with your review. I think Catton is a brilliant writer and I highly recommend The Rehearsal, but i would wager that The Luminaries is too big and too complex. I don;t think the underlying structure would be clear unless you read the whole thing, which i did not. I’ve heard that if you make it to the end you have an a-ha moment when everything comes together, but until you get there I found it rather slow going.


  15. Well, it is sitting in my pile, along with The Goldfinch, so one day I should be angle to respond. However there are one or two to go before I get there.


  16. I just received this book for mother’s day. At 7 pages in. the protagonist has just managed to enter the room in the opening scene..hhmmmm. Not sure if this bodes well…;) Thanks for your review. Very well written.


  17. Thank you for your review, which I enjoyed, although I don’t know when I will have time to get stuck in. It’s a pity I don’t commute to London.


  18. I have a Kindle copy, and every time I think about starting it, I convince myself that I don’t have time for an 800 page book. I appreciate your review… which makes me think that I really don’t need to be in a rush to read The Luminaries any time soon.


  19. bibliosa

    I read the first chapter, and I had to set it aside because it just wasn’t grabbing me, so I decided to put it on hold which my wrist was also very thankful for. Your review has convinced me to give it another shot, however, I’ll get the e-book since I agree with you big books are tough to commute with!


  20. Yes I finished it and v m liked the book. I agree about the somewhat confusing structures but the story and plot are brilliant. Well written


  21. I love, love, loved it. You get out what you put in, and it’s an investment of time, but worth every minute in my opinion. Not easy, but so accomplished that’s it’s an experience worth committing to.
    Having said that, I totally ignored the astrological stuff, and didn’t feel I missed out for it!


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  24. Margaret Nippert

    I have just finished reading the Luminaries. A tale of perseverance, patience and persistence. Sorry. A tale requiring perseverance, patience and persistence. However the end experience is like having a tasty and nutritious meal. But in the end
    who assaulted Anna and who killed Carver, and why? what did I miss?


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