Thursday, December 17, 2020

Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: August 24th, 2013
Hardcover. 848 pages

About The Luminaries:

"It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky. 
Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bust, The Luminaries is a brilliantly constructed, fiendishly clever ghost story and a gripping page-turner. "

I'm writing this review only a few hours after finishing The Luminaries, so my thoughts are still fresh, but also still trying to make sense of everything. My immediate thoughts on this book are mainly ones of astonishment and awe at what an intricately drawn and meticulously detailed story and mystery this was.

The Luminaries is a hefty tome and a rather intimidating story to jump into at times. Catton writes in stunning prose that has such a beautiful flow to it, but it is also a, at times, rather dense prose in regards to its content. There is a lot of information given at  many different times, and Catton also puts a lot of detail into her writing and descriptions as well, which makes this a slower-paced story in the beginning. I was pretty hooked from the beginning of the book, but at the same time it was definitely a slow beginning that took me a while to fully find myself immersed and caring about what's happening, especially since the first three-hundred or so pages take place on the same day (this portion is written as characters recount past stories, so there are more things happening than just one day's worth, but we are essentially stuck in the same scene for quite a while). Despite it being slow, the reader is still thrown into a sort of mystery right away that it took me a while to fully understand why it mattered or what the purpose was in telling this story.  

Since there is such a large cast of characters, I'm hesitant to spend too much time listing each one and discussing their roles, so I'll try to do my best to do a more general summary of how the characters were developed. If you're like me at all, you might feel a bit worried when you see that there are twelve characters already mentioned in the summary, and you might feel even more overwhelmed when I tell you that those twelve are not the only ones we follow. However, to ease any worry I will tell you that I somehow had no trouble remembering who each character was and distinguishing them from one another (which was astounding to me, to be honest!). Catton does such a good job of giving each character a unique voice, personality, and role in the story that it's exceptionally easy to follow along and feel interested in following their story. We do follow quite a few different POVs at various points, and I think one aspect of this that was really a strong point was in how deliberately and carefully Catton weaved in each character's POV and scenes. There were times when we would hear from some characters a lot, and then we would focus on some others for a while, and then we would return to some, and then maybe return to others--I know this sounds vague, but I really do appreciate and respect how well Catton juggled so many characters so as to give each one adequate face time in the novel and plot itself. You really can't take out one single character from this book and still have the cohesive novel that has been presented--each character plays a vital and important role at some point in the story.

And this brings me to my next point of discussion, which is the overall plot itself. Never have I wanted to get out a big sheet of paper and plot out every event of the plot with a novel more than I have with The Luminaries. This is a huge story that centers around a few rather minor events, and there is so much that builds up to an understanding of how everything unfolded to lead to each and every last event. The way that Catton slowly unravels each layer of the story is what makes this such a successful mystery, as you always have enough to wonder at, but not enough to make solid connections until she continues peeling back layer after layer, beginning the story with tales of the past, then moving to the present, and slowly returning to the past to provide all the background information needed to understand everything. And as much as I keep calling this story a mystery, it's also simply a stunning and epic tale of peoples' lives during the New Zealand gold rush period in the 1850s. This is not a setting that I often get to read about, and Catton brought it to life so beautifully and in such a way that I would really love to learn more about it.

Lastly, I want to mention the structure of this book from the physical standpoint so that I can highlight how impressed I was with the mathematical meticulousness of the book itself. The number twelve is an important one in this book, and that can be seen with the twelve parts that make up the entirety of the story. Within each part are unnumbered chapters, and the most interesting part about this is that each chapter + part equaled the number thirteen. So, for instance, Part 1 has twelve individual chapters, Part 2 has eleven, and so on and so forth to Part 12 which only has one chapter. Similarly, the size of each part and the chapters within seem to mimic the cycle of a moon from full to new, going from larger sizes to smaller. There are also a few details within the story itself that I can't mention because of spoilers that also have to do with some variant of the number twelve, which I loved discovering. And, of course, there are twelve men that makeup the foundation of the story, each of which corresponds to a sign, of course, as well, since this book is also very heavily dependent upon star charts and astrology, which was such an interesting detail. I don't know too much past the basics, but I would love to learn more so that I can discover even more hidden details that Catton has surely included. Some people might call some of the structural aspects gimmicky, but I personally really loved them, as they are those little details that I Think make a book stand out even more. 

Overall, I think it's going to be five stars from me for The Luminaries. I felt a little unsure at times while reading this and wondering if I would ever finish, but I was hooked almost constantly throughout and I just really think this is a fantastic story. I listened to some parts near the end on audio and I would highly recommend the audiobook if you prefer those, as the narrator is fantastic at creating voices and accents for each character.

Buy the book: Amazon | IndieBound


  1. Whoa, this sounds so good. I didn't realize it was such a long book, which automatically scares me away, lol. I love the idea that the author took so much time to plan out the number of parts, chapters and characters, how cool!

  2. Wow, when I read reviews like this, it just makes me feel more in awe of authors and their creativity and genius!