Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)

Author: Eleanor Catton

Title: The Luminaries

Format: hardcover

Pages: 848

Series: –

An intriguing, intricate puzzle of a novel, in which historical fiction meets murder mystery, Catton’s The Luminaries is a solid entry for your New Zealand shelf. It’s smooth and well-written, with exquisite worldbuilding transporting the reader to the western shores of South Island, in the middle of the 19th-century gold fever, which in large part shaped New Zealand’s identity and sensibilities – not to mention the almost feudal hierarchy of landowners that persists to this day.

Catton’s novel is elegantly written – both in its somewhat fanciful structure and in its style, clearly inspired by 19th-century literature. When I got this book from the library I was initially quite doubtful whether I’d be able to conquer the nearly 900 pages within a month. But once I started reading it went surprisingly quickly – Catton writes engagingly, with a significant storytelling skill. The mystery at the heart of the novel is captivating; the chorus of voices narrating it creates a rich, convoluted pattern. The disparate strands and timelines eventually converge, rendering the full picture to the satisfaction of a patient reader. There is a very self-contained, independent quality to Catton’s cast of early settlers, a quality echoing through the generations in the tenet of the self-made man. New Zealanders are pretty laid back these days, but very much into the whole DIY stuff; it’s almost a point of pride for many to do all sorts of improvements on their own. Needless to say, that independence sometimes acquires a cut-throat edge, and the indifferent cruelty born out of it can be in some cases raised to an art ;).

It is a well-designed novel, definitely worth a try. That said, I’m sure one of the main draws of this book for me will not appeal to many – mainly, the setting, which I know firsthand. I’ve been to Hokitika and Arahura River, and Catton’s descriptions resonated with my experience. NZ’s West Coast is a unique place, lush and almost desolate, where you can witness nature’s wild side, powerful and uncaring. It is a real spectacle, the meeting of sea and shore, the unrelenting onslaught of water and wind. This wilderness plays an important part in the novel, as both a catalyst for the events and a conduit for human urges. Catton doesn’t aim as high as allegory, but nevertheless describes with care the make-believe nature of the law and the ruthlessness lurking beneath the thin veneer of civilization covering the life on the frontier in Hokitika. This flimsy opulence built on a shared dream is magnified and set in stark relief against the remote wilderness of its surroundings. 

All that praise, and no critique? Come on, Ola, you can surely do better!

Yes, indeed, I can. To be fair, I would actually love to praise this book without reservation; Catton’s skill is evident and The Luminaries was a reading pleasure, all the more precious for its unexpectedness. The one thing that I’m less than enamoured with in this novel is however quite crucial to the enjoyment of the whole, and I feel obliged to share my critique with you. Catton patterned her book after two things you really need to feel positive about to fully buy into her narrative: Tarot and astrology. If you’re not a fan of the theory that star movements in some way influence our lives, you’ll have a hard time divining (heh, see what I did there?) why on Earth Catton spends so much time on astral charts and zodiac signs. You’ll be also hard pressed to suspend your disbelief in the main conceit of the novel, the concept of star-crossed lovers whose fates are intertwined so deeply that one physically experiences the experiences of the other. There is an echo of Plato’s myth of the Androgyne here, but because the majority of the novel is very realistic, down to Earth and almost gritty, the sudden incursion of fantasy is jarring. Not sure if Catton aimed for super-realism here, or maybe that’s the way she perceives the world and for her the boundary between one’s fate decreed by the position of stars at the moment of birth and the physical reality of addiction, incarceration, murder, indigestion and what have you in everyday life is simply non-existent. For me, the experience was jarring to the extreme, and in the end – a tad disappointing; where I wanted a believable explanation, I got fortunetelling and X Files vibes. The mystery turned out at least partly inexplicable, by way of deus ex machina, and I felt that this particular turn of events was quite unnecessary; especially because the rest was very satisfying indeed, the pastiche of the 19-century literature tonally and thematically almost perfect.

And yet, even with this not insignificant drawback, I’m still happy to recommend this novel to those who know what they’re signing up for – just for a taste of old New Zealand, feverish with gold rush and the dream of starting anew. For those interested, Catton’s novel was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2013, and was adapted to a TV miniseries in 2020.

Score: 7.5/10

21 thoughts on “Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)

  1. The setting for this book sounds indeed very fascinating, offering as it does the opportunity of visiting (even virtually) New Zealand, whose landscapes I know only through what Peter Jackson chose to share in the LOTR movies. That, and the chance of learning something of the country’s history, might very well counterbalance the weirdness from tarot and astrology…
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s worth a try, I think, Maddalena 🙂 It has a certain early Wild West vibe, with saloons, girls, one newspaper, and people from all walks of life trying to make a fortune and start anew. The astrology angle can be easily dismissed for the most part – sadly, it plays a big role in the conclusion, and hence my disappointment. But as a period piece it works surprisingly well, with clear Dickensian undertones and a touch of the exotic wilderness.

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pick a card, any card!

    ~holds card to forehead

    You picked ….. The Bookstooge of Jokers!
    That means you must immediately give any bookstooge you know 10,000 american dollars OR your shoe laces will break for the rest of your life. Oh, what a horrible fate!

    The inclusion of tarot would give me a little pause, but not much. But the indepth blabber about it would definitely make this a dnf for me. I don’t have time for that…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The blabber is kept to a minimum for the most part – it just spoils the ending, sigh. For most of the book it’s just an overarching conceit you might find irritating but relatively easy to ignore. I just don’t appreciate when a realist novel springs up a surprising supernatural intervention at the very end, that puts all the events in new light and to me smacks of prioritising self-indulgence over quality. But, surprisingly enough, I think you might enjoy this one a bit – it is quite Dickensian in style and themes, and justice for past sins plays a large part 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounded like an interesting novel right up to the point where you mention tarot cards. I find that stuff very hard to enjoy (unless we’re talking about the Deck of Dragons of course!).

    I didn’t know about the New Zealand gold rush. I actually know very little about NZ history except that there used to live very big birds. I’ve visited the place but we only stayed on the north island and the coast is different there.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Don’t read Powers’s Last Call, then! 😜 Incidentally, Deck of Dragons made me interested in Tarot’s symbolism enough to get a brief introduction into the meaning and visuals of the cards – I’d wager an opinion that for a large part, it’s a different way of expressing what Jung termed archetypes. I don’t believe in Tarot as a diving tool but I think the cards imagery expresses certain ideas about human nature. This is what I think Erikson was utilizing, as well. To be fair to Catton, the astrology and Tarot start playing a significant role only in the later part of the novel – but as they suddenly turn out to be key elements in the conclusion, my disappointment with the ending was serious.

      Ah, North Island is a different beast altogether – although there are old gold mines in Coromandel. You can still find gold in the South Island, and people do pan for gold in streams. Nothing as monumental as during the gold rush, for sure, but some apparently do make a living out of it. I think Catton depicts the historical aspects faithfully enough – though I don’t know any other book about that period in NZ, so my knowledge is somewhat limited to popular history facts and some museum exhibitions ;).


  4. Oh, a positive review, Ola – I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked! But I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

    However, if familiarity with the landscape plays a crucial part in the attraction of this novel for a NZ reader is this a major drawback for outsiders? Or is it better for non-NZers to treat Catton’s fiction as a magical realist novel and its landscape as a fantasy setting, aided by its cartomancy theme?

    I suppose though for me the major factor would be its sheer length and whether I’d want to invest the time and effort required. Hmm.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah, a deserved jab from you, Chris, I freely admit 😀

      I wouldn’t say that a first-hand experience with the land is necessary to enjoy this novel, though it was a source of additional pleasure for me. I think without that sensory map you can enjoy it as well as other novels about exotic, faraway places, like Treasure Island, say – and Catton does a decent job of depicting Hokitika and the wild West Coast. I am miffed about that ending mostly because up to a point the novel is very straightforwardly realistic – and thus the sudden supernatural intervention/explanation at the end comes as an unwelcome surprise. For Catton it was clearly a major theme, and she spent a lot of time on the structure of the novel, adjusting the lenghts of the parts to the phases of the moon, so that each subsequent part is half the length of its predecessor; she even checked the maps of the night sky over Hokitika in the 1800s, and devised her horoscopes accordingly, etc. But for me, the entire astrology angle was more of a hindrance, a conceit that brought nothing to an otherwise pretty solid novel, and even worked to its detriment. I think you might discover more joy in this additional layer of the novel than I did, Chris! I’d still recommend it to you if you have time 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Having almost no particular knowledge about the setting probably wouldn’t help me much but if written elegantly, I guess the story could definitely work. However… Tarot and astrology… I don’t know if both are things I’d like to read more about. They’ve never intrigued me much unless you partner them up with heavy epic fantasy elements. Then, I’m sold. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve heard good things about this one and I almost considered giving it a try… Then I read the dreaded words “tarot and astrology”! After all the babbling about astrology in Drive your plow drove me absolutely nuts, I think I may give this one a miss.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it’s peculiar thing and it just really spoiled the last part of the book for me. It felt just so out of left field – I was happy to ignore the intros and the charts for the most part, as they didn’t impinge on the plot or my reading pleasure, but that explanation just ruined it. Still, I guess if you’re forewarned you can gird your loins against the astrological intrusions and enjoy the rest for it’s really quite good!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Cool. Especially interesting that you can´t figure out from the book whether she means it or not. From the way you describe it, she means it. Why else do all the work? Some flavor?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I’m still quite confused on that account – I even read some interviews with Catton to get a better understanding, and I didn’t get a clear picture ;). She’s quite ambiguous on that topic, on one hand saying she doesn’t really believe it, on the other spending mindblowing amounts of time digging into it and playing with it, constructing accurate charts and whatnot. To me that level of effort speaks of more than just a play. That said, I don’t think I’ve never met anyone who would be really serious about astrology so not sure how that would look like. Catton’s approach feels way too much like a conceit, an idea to play with, because the characteristics she assigns to her characters are very stereotypical in terms of astrology – and that ending is just… I guess it feels like a case of an author’s darling that should’ve been killed but wasn’t, but then I don’t want to assume, because if she really believes it maybe that was a logical solution to her. Maybe she just went all the way with the Victorian mindset and kind of blurred the lines of what’s real and what’s not 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’d given this book a chance, Ola, when it first came out, but couldn’t get past page 20 or so. Can’t remember why, because I’m a huge NZ fan. I think I just wasn’t in the mood for the rustic old-timey one-horse-town nature of the setting. And now that I know about the tarot/astrology angle, I’m even less inclined to give Catton another shot, so thanks for that tip!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is an intentional pastiche of a Victorian novel, so I totally get your reaction – you’ve got to be in the mood for this, Betsy! But I think that despite the strange astrology angle it is an intriguing effort to give a voice, or more precisely to invent a tradition, when there was none. But yes, astrology is not my thing, so I was rather thrown off by this development. I feel like it could’ve been a better novel without that supernatural stuff that frankly seems just lazy (or an author’s darling, and I can see myself repeating after Carroll’s Red Queen, “off with their head!”). I have another of Catton’s books on my TBR, Birnam Wood about guerilla gardening, so I’ll let you know how that one goes!

      Liked by 1 person

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