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Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to!

As with The Goldfinch, I’m very late arriving with this, but this seems to be turning into the summer when I finally have time to read all those big thick books I’ve been putting off.

The Luminaries is a pseudo-Victorian mystery set in New Zealand during the gold panning days.   As would have been the case at that time and place, the large cast of characters is very male, with the exception of a prostitute and an enigmatic “femme fatale,” and very white, apart from a couple of Chinese men and a native New Zealander.

Differentiation between all these characters is helped by the fact that their roles are strongly identified with their profession/place in society.  On another level, Catton has assigned each a sign of the Zodiac, or a planet, and there are two “moon” and “sun” characters, the mysteriously missing young man Emery Staines and prostitute Anna Wetherall.  The “Zodiac” characters’ actions motives revolve around the “moon” and the “sun”.

If this all sounds very complicated, the nice thing is that you don’t have to know anything about this at all to enjoy the book, which is basically a murder mystery, done in that atmospheric manner that I love my mysteries to unfold in, and which is so different from most modern mysteries/thrillers, which I don’t get on with at all.

I’d heard criticisms of the book’s complicated structure, but I found that I liked it.  Each section is half as long as the one before.  That immediately got me thinking about the way mathematical series work, and how the sums of some series get bigger and bigger (diverge) and the sums of others converge, ie get closer and closer but never exactly get to the same point as a number.  So if you add a half and a quarter and an eighth and keep going with terms that are half as big again, you get to 1.   There are these things called Baravelle spirals, which illustrate what I am thinking of.  For me, it mirrored the idea that the mystery was getting ever more complex, but that we would never really reach the heart of it.

The best thing about the book was the incredible way in which the twenty-eight year old Catton (and that’s twenty-eight when it was published! Never mind the time it took her to write and research it) empathised with the way outsiders, especially racial and gender outsiders, had to battle so hard to survive in this harsh society.  Some of the backstories were full of terrible injustice, and as the novel unfolded, I found I was rooting for the “Goodies” and wanting the “Baddies” to come to a sticky end – something I find a compelling motive to read on.

The end was the only thing that was a bit disappointing – it didn’t have the emotional closure that I would have liked, considering how much I had invested in the characters by the end of it.  Still, I just as much enjoy an exciting journey as I do a great destination.



      • It’s one of the benefits of not driving! Lots of spare time on the train. My next big book planned is Ulysses, which I think will slow me up quite a bit – expect me to go quiet very soon.

  1. I am ashamed to say that this is still sitting on my ‘about to be read’ shelf, having been ‘about to be read’ for nearly two years now. I just don’t seem to have the space between books that have to be read to tackle something this long. Perhaps over Christmas?????

    • It does look off putting, doesn’t it? Totally understand the feeling that it’s more of a book to read over a long break.

  2. I have to say too, that this thick novel looks daunting to me. The Goldfinch I listened to it as audiobook and quite enjoyed it. I have a feeling that The Luminaries sounds like a script for a movie. Another thick big book is Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth, which I’d just watched its film adaptation, and have now put it on my TBR list. Maybe I’ll have to wait till The Luminaries is turned into a movie before I attempt to read it. 🙂

    • I think it could be a very atmospheric film, although one of those productions where everyone would be shaking their heads and starting their reviews by talking about how unfilmable the book is supposed to be. I think part of the mystery is packed up in the structure of it, a film would necessarily have to be more linear I think, and would a lot of the atmosphere and mystery be lost in that? You could certainly argue that a film would be a better use of your time!

  3. Sounds like you got on better with this than I did – I found the structure too distracting. But I think Catton is an author I will always be interested in even though I didn’t love either The Luminaries or The Rehearsal.

    • It will be interesting to see what she comes up with next! Whether she will stay with the unusual structures, or what will she write if she chooses to go to more conventional.

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