The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

I was given The Luminaries by someone very dear to me as they were keen to share their favourite book. This was a delightful gesture and I was thrilled to receive such a noted work.

I am usually slightly wary of reading prize winning novels, and The Luminaries is a Man Booker prize winner, but I had no such hesitations here as the novel came so highly recommended. I also normally shy away from novels over 500 pages, as my TBR pile is so high, I want to be able to get through as many as possible. However, again, I was undaunted by the 832 pages in my edition of The Luminaries.

The novel is set in 1866, when Walter Moody has arrived at the goldfields in New Zealand to make his fortune. However, the young Walter Moody has seen something that shakes him to his core. Shortly after he arrives, he takes up residence in one of the town’s hotels where he inadvertently joins a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. Moody is told the stories from different perspectives of those in the group and learns that a wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. He is soon drawn into the mystery and the novel explores the network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky. Details of the sky separate the different parts of the book.

As their respective stories capture Moody’s attention, he realizes that his own experience on board the ship may have a connection to this fantastic collage of stories. But as soon as the reader thinks he or she has some or most of this crazy puzzle figured out, things have a way of transforming into something completely different. Like the era, the goldfields and the people who inhabit this novel, your sense of stability while reading this book often finds itself in a bit of turmoil. I found this unsettling and irritating, but it will surely appeal to others.

The most obvious theme of the novel is the search for fortune. It is found in gold mining, chance, and fate. Fortunes are won, fortunes are lost, and fortune works as an agent of transformation. There is so much in this book, none the least of which is an old-fashioned, Victorian-style mystery and adventure story at the novel’s heart; there’s also a look at a volatile, wild-west-type period in New Zealand’s history. I knew nothing about the gold rush in New Zealand and found that aspect of the novel interesting. But I do not read novels for a history lesson, I read them for enjoyment.

Although at over 800 pages, with 20 main characters and a convoluted yet original narrative structure, Elanor Catton’s second novel The Luminaries simply cannot be taken lightly, I did not enjoy this novel. It was a gift and I read it carefully, but every page was a chore. I get angry when authors decide to show their readers how clever they are, and this in this, the author is a serial offender.

Finally I finished it, only because of who I received it from. I honestly had to force myself through every page. I must conclude that this book was obviously not for me. It was very boring and I did not empathise with any of the characters nor did they interest me. By the end, I did not even care about the whole mystery. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is not a book I can recommend. 

The Author

Eleanor Catton is a New Zealand author who was born in Canada while her father, a New Zealand graduate, was completing a doctorate at the University of Western Ontario. She lived in Yorkshire, UK until the age of 13, before her family settled in Canterbury, New Zealand. She studied English at the University of Canterbury, and completed a Master’s in Creative Writing at The Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington. She wrote her first novel, The Rehearsal, as her master’s thesis. Eleanor Catton holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she also held an adjunct professorship, and an MA in fiction from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. Currently she teaches creative writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology. 

Val Penny


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