Book Review: The Luminaries

This review includes discussion of the plot which may be spoilers. 

Eleanor Catton was the youngest-ever winner of the Man Booker when she took the prize at the age of 28 in 2013. The Luminaries – incidentally also the longest-ever work to win – is only her second novel; it has remarkable depth, complexity and elegance, usually associated with more mature writers who have honed their skill over time. Younger writers are usually feted for their energy and originality but don’t always exercise the more complete precision and control that can be observed in writers with a longer career (and therefore more time to practice). Like Donna Tartt (29 when The Secret History was published), Catton is an exception: her prose is utterly precise and completely poised.

This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at // under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.
Astronomical clock in the Cathedral St-Jean in Lyon, closeup of dial – from Wikimedia Commons, created by Chris 73

The Luminaries is written with more than a nod to the literary style of the 19th century, the temporal setting for the story. In fact the book is written in the style of a period novel, with Bowlderisation (‘damned’ is rendered as ‘d___ed’) and summaries briefly setting out the action at the start of each chapter; but although one description of the novel proclaimed it as such, this is no mere parody. By today’s standards, novels actually written in the 19th century are often clunky and lumbering beasts: expansive, rambling, overwrought and repetitive. Anna Karenina: a literary masterpiece with endlessly repetitive episodes. Charles Dickens’ works, which were serials, are also often repetitive and plodding when read in one sitting. The Luminaries comes close to being, like the 19th-century novels it emulates, overwritten…but never quite teeters over the edge. Just when you think it’s close, Catton reigns it in, exhibiting extreme control over prose which can only be possible with the tight, close editing that typewritten, moveable text and proof copies (as well as teams of talented editors and copyeditors who can pick up errors and plot holes the overwhelmed author might miss) allows. Therefore, although an homage to the 19th-century novel, The Luminaries could never possibly have been written in the age of longhand. Despite its style, with its omniscient and somewhat self-satisfied, but anonymous narrator, the ornate description and the expansive cast of characters (we meet thirteen men in the first chapter alone), this is a profoundly modern (or postmodern) novel.

So much for the style. I think it’s evident that I was utterly taken and awed by it: Catton’s writing is luminous and I haven’t had such a profound moment of literary excitement since reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I do think, however, that some people may find it hard going: if you really hate a flowery turn of phrase or ornamental prose and only want to read quite plain writing (like that of Hemingway), and want a plot that leads you to a direct and satisfying conclusion, The Luminaries will probably grate. Did you hate Ian McEwan’s Saturday? Although different in many ways in terms of setting and narrator, the postmodern set-up and nature (though by no means details) of the plot means you probably might not like The Luminaries. If you are very focused on character development and the emotional worlds of the people of the book, you might not like The Luminaries.

In terms of plot, the novel is (as I more or less summed up to my boyfriend shortly after reading): ‘suspense/mystery in 19th-century New Zealand during the gold rush, with some magical realism’. But it’s much more than that, of course. The novel starts in the recently-established town of Hotikita with the arrival of Walter Moody, a young man previously of Edinburgh, who inadvertently interrupts a clandestine meeting of twelve men of the town. He gains their confidence, and much of the first part of the book is taken up by their relation of their part of the mystery which unfolds but does not resolve: why has the luckiest man in Hotikita, Emery Staines, disappeared? Why was local prostitute Anna Wetherell discovered half-dead the same night? Was local politician Alistair Lauderback involved in the death of the hermit Crosbie Wells (also the same night)? And how are villainous Francis Carver and scheming Lydia Wells involved in these events? What unfolds in the first part is the twelve men’s different knowledge, perceptions and prejudices about what could have happened. Further, the cast of twelve men – explicitly likened to a jury – is diverse, including a reverend, newspaper-owner, local magnate (owner of goldfields, the theatre and the brothel), and two Chinese workers and a Maori greenstone carver, whose racial and social differences are heightened by language barriers. Fortunately, Catton’s powers of description, and to some extent her reduction of each character into a few tropes that can be called upon when they are central – for example, the merchant Harald Nilssen’s love of natty dressing – allowed me to recognise each character and place them in the text, avoiding confusion over who was who.

The mystery does reveal itself over time, and part of the plot is driven forward by a courtroom scene in which so many deceptions take place that, as a reader, I felt the gleefulness of knowing an exciting secret while also feeling the abject fear that the whole thing won’t go off smoothly. As the course of the novel proceeds, more and more action is folded into the italicised summaries which start each chapter, so as readers we rely less and less on the narrative and more on our memories to flavour the resolution of the plot. I found the resolution to be an exciting and profoundly satisfying experience – I didn’t feel that at the heart of the book there was a hollowness or nothingness, as Kirsty Gunn suggests in The Guardian. In fact I felt that the heart of the message was powerful and moving – for me, the underlying point of the novel was similar (not the same) to those final lines of Philip Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb: “out almost-instinct almost true: what will survive of us is love” – that is, there is something there that is like love, like emotional truth. But what is it, exactly? It is not quite there. But it is sort of there. It is recognisably important but we cannot grasp it. And so on.

I lugged this hefty doorstopper of a book on the Tube with me every day to read on the commute (I don’t Kindle) and I missed out on sleep when I came to the final chapters and absolutely had to, had to, finish it right now even though I had to go into work the next day. This book was worth the shoulder strain. When it finished, I was happy with how it had concluded, and the enjoyment I had experienced in reading it was profound. For me, it was not hollow, it was not empty, it was not a nothingness. However, as with The French Lieutenant’s Woman, where the style was such a key reason for my enjoyment of the book, the satisfaction at the plot’s end did not match my enjoyment of the writing itself.

(I very much enjoyed this thoughtful review even though my experience with the novel was slightly different.)

I think I felt this way because what intrigued me so much about the novel’s plot was the elements of magical realism, which I haven’t seen referred to in the reviews I have read. This might be because magical realism is so strongly associated with Latin American writers that it falls outside literary critics’ schema for authors from elsewhere, but I think these elements unlock the heart of the novel and ameliorate the charge of emptiness. What the magical realist elements of the plot indicated to me was Catton’s message that human beings can have profound, important and enduring connections which sustain them – an important message in a novel where miscommunication, language barriers and rifts between people drive so much of the action forward.

Two things about the novel which gave me some pause. Apparently the ornate structure of the book and the references to the signs of the Zodiac and astrology are all elaborate metaphors, with each character epitomising a particular astrological sign or the attributes of certain heavenly bodies. This very much passed me by (as it did this reviewer); it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book and I don’t think it affected my understanding of it.

The second aspect of the book that bothered me was the portrayal of the prostitute, Anna Wetherell. It should be noted that there are only two women in the book, and both are prostitutes. Anna is a classic fallen woman: a virginal and naive girl who is tricked into becoming a prostitute. She is not portrayed particularly sympathetically throughout the novel until we discover this (she’s not really portrayed unsympathetically either. She is a composite character, drawn of the perspectives of others, and we don’t meet her as herself until the end). I wasn’t quite sure if Anna as naif to whore to reformed woman was introduced to emulate 19th-century conventional morality about prostitution, or if this portrayal of Anna was a device to make readers sympathise with her. Certainly, we are invited to patently dislike Lydia Wells, the woman who baldly approaches prostitution, gambling and drink as mere business. Anna Wetherell is the heart of the novel and yet I couldn’t quite decide if her portrayal was for the book – to reflect the pattern of reform 19th-century moral crusaders hoped prostitutes would take, reverting to a better life, and also reflecting the dangers in the world for a young girl which these same crusaders were convinced lurked everywhere – or for us, the readers, because Catton just couldn’t trust that we would like a woman who had voluntarily become a sex worker. This niggle has stayed with me and I haven’t yet quite resolved it.



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