The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – Book Review

Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika in 1866 via a long-winded route from Scotland to seek his fortune in the gold fields of New Zealand.  On his first night he casually stumbles upon a secret meeting of 12 men who have assembled in order to uncover the mystery that links, a politician, an opium riddled whore, a stash of Gold, and the murder of a hermit.


It took me four attempts to get to page 20 of Catton’s impressive doorstop of a 2013 Man Booker prize winning second novel (830+ pages). I wasn’t re reading but I was not convinced that her late 19th century descriptive style was grabbing my attention. In that first 20 pages Catton describes Walter Moody’s effect and impression upon entering a room. Just before I gave in I turned to page 20 and realised I was hooked. I had fully entered the world of Hokitika and surrounded by the various colourful characters who busied themselves about its streets, hotels, taverns, businesses, goldfields, opium dens and newspaper, all peppered with the authors dry wit.


In the first section of the book Catton presents us and Walter Moody with a mystery and the twelve men who are trying to uncover its secrets. But she delivers the different pieces of the puzzle on a spinning tray full of clever literary devices. Information is pieced together by the inner and outer voices of the characters so that the reader is the only one who sees the full picture, or at least the fullest picture.

By the time we find ourselves making our way down the now familiar streets of the gold-mining town of Hokitika in the second section our boots are muddied, sweat and opium fumes tug at our nostrils, dead men are hinting that there are tales to be told and we could easily converse with any of the characters about more than a handful of topics;  we almost uncover different aspects of intriguingly jumbled narrative with each line of every exchange and conversation.

Novelist Eleanor Catton, author of The Rehearsal

Catton is a master a sculpting the delivery of her story and painting an engrossing background as if it was an afterthought. Up to around 760 I did not feel like I was reading a book of over one and a half reams but the final stretch or at least those last 70 pages began to sag and my interest flagged.

I did not take into account the astrological significance before or during my reading and despite how lovely the adventure of language and character I was on  the structure did not work in my favour. While I still enjoyed being in the company of these characters I missed the prominent earlier ones who had figured so much in the first half. But the first two thirds are still better than many entire books I have read.

There are two questions that remain unanswered in my mind but I will  not ruin the plot for those of you who are yet to dive into the wonderful world Catton has created.

If you have read it we have already begun to discuss plot points in the comments below. (Spoilers ahoy)

Nevertheless I would recommend The Luminaries and look forward to reading more from Catton.


Other posts which may be of interest.

2013 Man Booker Longlisted Irish Authors

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki Book Review


10 responses to “The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – Book Review

  1. Nice review Ben, I’ve heard a lot of comment on how the last section flags but it sounds like it’s still a pretty impressive read. Looking forward to it…

  2. I enjoyed the read and did find the last section distracting, especially knowing that each progressive chapter was going to be half the length of that preceding it, so in this case, the structure imposes on the story, which could explain the very long footnotes.

    • A case of the journey being more entertaining than the destination.

      Did you have any questions about a couple of loose ends or were you satisfied?

      • I wasn’t sure about the apparition on the boat and feel that for sure it’s a book that one learns more on rereading, just reading one of the judges comments on his experience of rereading it and how much more he picked up and appreciated it each time, intrigues.

        Even the author herself admits she had to work to keep all the plot threads together, but overall for a first read I was satisfied, whilst knowing it isn’t possible to totally get everything.

      • Yup the apparition was one question unless Staines managed to get himself aboard in a miasma of opium & Anna signing the signature? (though I reasoned that it might have been because of their ‘connection’?)

  3. Ok, I’m skipping all the comments because I haven’t read it yet, but am intrigued enough to want to give it a try.

  4. akipping the comments also. this is on my list of books to read. cheers, ben

  5. It’s taken me over a month to get into the book, reading a few pages at a time. The writing is phenomenal, which is why I keep coming back to it…it’s not an “easy” read but one that takes quite a bit of concentration and attention to the spectacular detail Catton provides. I also need to brush up on astrology to make the connections…connextions.

  6. A very helpful and fair review…I have been so undecided about this one! The length and structure do intimidate me a bit.

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