The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

the luminaries

Well, I finally finished. Seven weeks of my life was spent reading this book; I wish I could say it was worth it, but I don’t really think it was. I closed the pages for the last time feeling absolutely furious. I felt like I had been cheated out of my right as a reader; to be left enriched and satisfied with the story I had been given. That’s the whole point of reading a book, isn’t it? I don’t read novels to be merely impressed by artistry or wordplay; I read them to become invested in the world created within the pages, and engrossed in the journey the characters find themselves embarking upon. I want to be moved. I want to be inspired. I want to be transported. I don’t want to waste my time on an experiment in style that promises so much and yet ultimately delivers nothing. Eleanor Catton is such a brilliant writer; her ability to recreate the voice of a 19th century novelist and manage the mind boggling complexity of a huge amount of multi stranded and circuitous plot lines is nothing short of genius. However, somewhere along the way, the emotion, the power and the passion of true storytelling managed to bleed off the pages, leaving just pretension behind.

The story is set in the 1860s, in Hokitika, New Zealand. A town in its infancy, it has been built to serve the needs of the men who have come from the far corners of the world to seek their fortunes on the gold fields. One of these such men is Scottish twenty something Walter Moody, who is escaping a family fall out and seeking a new start in a life he has largely found disappointing. He stumbles off the ship that has brought him to Hokitika and straight into a bar on a fateful night in January; for he walks into a conference of men gathered to discuss their roles in a mystery that has had the whole town talking. A dead hermit. A suicidal whore. A missing young entepreneur. A hidden fortune. All connected, but how? Gradually, over the course of 800 pages, through the various viewpoints of the implicated participants in the events, the mystery will be unravelled. This is done in twelve parts of diminishing lengths, designed to reflect the twelve signs of the zodiac.

The premise of the novel is fascinating. The setting and characters are original, varied and colourful. There was so much potential material to explore. What did it feel like to board a ship for a new life, knowing you’d never return? What was it like to be lonely and afraid in a new country, with nothing and no one to your name? What did Anna Wetherell, the exploited prostitute, feel when she realised she had walked into a trap as soon as she stepped onto New Zealand soil? How did the Maoris feel at having their country taken from them? What conflicts did this cause? The emotional depths that could have been plumbed! The stories that could have been told! But this was not Catton’s desire, clearly, for The Luminaries‘ focus is on plotting, not emotion. We never really get to see inside the characters’ heads, or understand where they have come from or where they are planning on going. There is very little character development at all, actually, and this was the ultimate disappointment of the novel for me. So much was left unsaid, and it felt like such a waste.

I want to write more about The Luminaries, as I feel I need to justify the amount of time I spent on reading it to some extent, but the plotting is so dense and so dependent on its slow and often surprising revelations that to say any more would ruin the reading experience of anyone dedicated enough to tackle it. The mystery at the novel’s core is kept tantalisingly at arm’s length throughout; everyone has to have an opportunity to share their tiny piece of the jigsaw before any clarity can begin to be achieved, and even then, as the story progresses, previously divulged details take on a changing significance as further colour is added to the picture by a later contributor. It’s all very intricate, and there are quite a few moments when threads finally come together and you get to have an ‘aha!’ moment, but the final pages end up leaving more questions than answers, which for me, defeated the entire purpose of the novel as a mystery. What’s the point in a mystery with no real resolution? What’s the point in characters who never really come to life? What’s the point in brilliant, clever writing with no emotional depth to  support it? What’s the point of an incredibly convoluted plot that is designed around the conceit of astrological charts when astrology plays no real role in the novel at all? I can’t deny that Eleanor Catton is phenomenally talented. But this is just the sort of novel someone with an MFA would write; technically brilliant, but so wrapped up in conceit that it becomes self indulgent, meaningless and lacking in any soul. It’s too clever for it’s own good, and as such, doesn’t really provide a pleasurable reading experience. Not a prize winner in my book, I’m afraid.

56 comments

  1. I started reading it this week… I did so with trepidation anyway after admiring her first novel but not enjoying it per se. A damning couple of last sentences but two that I suspect I am likely to agree with.

    1. It’s an interesting read, claire…I hope you’re enjoying it. It’s a shame that I didn’t enjoy it more – I wish I had for the amount of time I spent reading the thing!

      1. You’ve just saved me from an investment in my time in a book I think I’d rather pull out in the winter🙂. Thank you!

  2. “I don’t read novels to be merely impressed by artistry or wordplay; I read them to become invested in the world created within the pages, and engrossed in the journey the characters find themselves embarking upon. I want to be moved. I want to be inspired. I want to be transported.”

    Yes!!!

    Haven’t read this one, but I have been thinking about tackling it. So maybe now I can bump it further down the list.

    One doesn’t always need complete resolution at the end of a novel, but in this case it sounds like it would have been appropriate. And technical ability – even brilliance – without, as you call it, soul, is not enough.

    I’m sorry you invested so much time in an ultimately disappointing novel, but I do thank you for spending some more time to formulate this response.

    1. But it IS worth the time. I’m fascinated that this novel has created such polarised comments. Just read it for the pleasure of the story. Forget having to critique it. Just because you didn’t like doesn’t mean others won’t find it as glorious as I did. Maybe you’d have been better pleased with it if it hadn’t had the baggage of being a prize winner. It’s a good, fun, descriptive story. I think reading it fast is the key. If you take weeks you’ll get lost.

  3. I’m sorry that you spent so much time reading a book that left you so disappointed. I appreciate your determination to get through it. I spent what seemed like forever reading An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. It began at or near the end and then went on to describe all of the dreary things that lead up to the ultimate tragedy. I felt like it was something that I should read. It used to be required reading in high school and I had missed it in some way. It was a dreary, depressing story. Thank you for the review. I understand the effort that went into it.

    1. I meant to read An American Tragedy after teaching my kids A Gathering Light, but never got around to it…I now feel I don’t need to, so thanks for that! I’m glad you enjoyed the review – thank you for reading it!

  4. I’m struggling with this one – at page 520 or so and completely stalled. The main issue I have with the book is that there doesn’t seem to be much character development at all, so I’m having a nearly impossible time keeping them all clear in my head. When a character is introduced, Catton describes his personality well, but then nothing said or done afterwards seems to bear any relation to that initial description. As far as I can see, these men are all pretty interchangeable. I agree that it’s not a worthy prize-winner.

    1. Yes- it is a real struggle to get them all straight in your head, isn’t it? I found the lack of characterisation a real problem. It’s a shame. I don’t understand why they gave this the Booker over the other choices, I must say.

  5. I’m *so* glad to have read this review, because I’ve been wobbling a bit about it because of all the hype. Thing is, before it won I had heard a lot of commentators saying it was clever but hollow, and that the astrological structure was pointless. Then once it won it was a case of Emperor’s New Clothes. But fortunately your review has convinced me it’s not something I need to read!

    1. I’m glad I have saved you from the slog! It is a hollow book – that’s a perfect word to describe it. The concept is very clever, but books need more than cleverness to make them readable!

  6. This is a model of what an unenthusiastic book review should be like. By telling us exactly what you did not like about The Luminaries you have given me sufficient information to help me assess whether I might want to read it. I don’t think I do.

  7. Obviously not everyone likes the same thing – and everyone’s reactions to books will of course differ. I loved this book – and I think it absolutely deserves the hype – and I generally don’t like hype. The Luminaries will be one of my books of the year.

  8. Aw, shame! I haven’t read this and probably won’t (not due to you, at least not entirely! the book hasn’t appealed to me from the word go). It’s always maddening to give a book your good faith and the benefit of the doubt all the way through, and to find at the end of it that your trust isn’t going to be repaid.😦

  9. I too absolutely loved this book. Part of this may because it only took me a week or so to read. I think sometimes you loose momentum if the reading process is spread out too long. I would highly recommend this book. One of my best of the year ( Along with Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.)

      1. Arrrgh! What unresolved ending??!!!!! Please, I beg you – don’t put others off the book simply because you did not manage to solve it! It’s totally unfair of you.

      2. I don’t understand what was unresolved? The majority of the mysteries were explained, and as for the rest, an attentive reader can place two and two together. The book doesn’t serve everything up in a place, that’s for sure, and I guess that’s what I liked about it.

  10. Thank you for your candid review – I now feel I can stop reading this book (which I have not enjoyed from the start). I’m only up to page 117 but it just isn’t doing it for me, and it’s been a REALLY hard slog. I’m usually a voracious reader but I just can’t get into this book.

    1. I’m glad you can feel like you can stop now! It’s just not worth pushing on with something you’re not enjoying. I wish I’d stopped, because I feel no sense of satisfaction having finished it! Welcome to my blog, by the way – it’s lovely to hear from you!

  11. and like you I want to be moved and entertained, and feel a connection with the characters in books. (Some of the characters in my favourite books are still alive and kicking in my head lol)!

  12. I’ve just spent Christmas week reading this and did enjoy it but felt all the frustrations that have been voiced! It’s one of those that has to be read uninterrupted or you can lose track of everything – I actually felt quite bereft after I finished it because it had taken over my life for the week! Could have been condensed by a third without losing anything and that would have made it easier to read in the bath!

  13. Great review bookssnob. I agree with a lot of what you say – have just reviewed it myself – but am probably more like Gillian. I didn’t find it hollow exactly, though I know others have, but I did feel that the plot and the structure overwhelmed everything else. I did like some of the characters – and I did love her understanding of character. There wasn’t a lot of development, but with a chronology that started near the end, moved forward a couple of months, and then flashed back several months and moved forward again, character developed probably wasn’t going to be the issue. It’s a book that’s worth reading though just to be part of the discussion! I read it over 8 days, 80 pages a day. I’m not sorry I did but I’m glad to be reading something else now!

    1. I’m not sorry I read it either, and I did find it interesting, but there was something missing for me that made it quite cold to read. Definitely a discussion piece if ever there was one!

  14. I was so relieved to read this review – it gave me licence to finally put down a book I have been struggling to finish for weeks. I kept thinking, “It won the Booker Prize, it must be good – what am I missing?”. I agree completely that the writing is fantastic and I admire Catton’s skill immensely, but the story is so slow to unfold that there is not much point in the skillful writing, is there? The glacial speed of the plot eventually out-wore my patience. I feel like a weight has been lifted now that I have given myself permission not to finish this book.

  15. There seems to be two kinds of people in the world: those who “get” The Luminaries and those who don’t. I’m on to my third reading. I read it the first time in frenetic haste. She had me by the throat from the first paragraph – the writing is superb and of course, and as a star gazer (but not into astrology), all the references to the night sky resonated. First time through, I read the last half of the book at breakneck speed. She’s very cleverly arranged the book so it’s almost impossible to read the second section without getting faster and faster as the chapters get shorter and shorter. When I came to the end I thought, “That was one hell of a yarn. Now what exactly happened? Who did what to whom? I’ll have to read it again slowly this time to find out.”
    So I started over immediately more slowly at first, but come the second half again, I started galloping again. I got to the end and I thought, “Well, I know a lot more this time, but there are still so many unanswered questions. I’ll have to read it again, but this time I’ll take a different tack. I thought, “I’m on to you, Eleanor Catton, you tricky little minx” so I’ve gone through and listed all the chapters and their dates and I’m reading in chronological order this time, and it is so interesting and so amazing. All is being revealed. Nuggets of information I skipped over, not once but twice, even though I was looking for them, are revealing themselves like colour in a prospector’s pan. There’s a part in the book – if you haven’t read it already I won’t give anything away, where one of the characters asks
    ‘Have you ever watched a magician at a market? Have you ever seen a cup-and-ball man at work? Well, it’s all in the art of diversion, Mr. Frost. They have ways of making you look away, by means of a joke or a noise or something unexpected, and while your head is turned, that’s when the cups get swapped, or filled, or emptied, or what have you. I don’t need to tell you that no diversion’s as good as a woman, and tonight, you’ll be contending with two.”
    Well, the poor old reader is contending with three women; the widow, the whore and the tricky little author who is a master at the cup-and-ball trick.
    I get a bit cross with people who rubbish The Luminaries because it doesn’t meet their terms. This book is not for lazy readers who want to be able to sit back and be taken on a joyride. I don’t think it’s for people who want to notch up yet another title on their reading list. This is a very special book. You have to work when you read this book, and the more effort you put in the greater your rewards. Five Stars.

    1. Totally agree! Well said, Marama. I admit I am shocked, Dear Book Snob, that you feel the mystery was not solved at the end! Which part was left unsolved, pray tell??!!! I fear you may have missed something, because it indeed solved itself perfectly, if you ‘got’ it. I think you can safely ask any of your unsolved questions here, given that the vast majority of your commenters seem determined not to read it. (What a tragedy!)

      1. I don’t think it was unsolved, I think it was unresolved – very different things! I did ‘get’ the mystery – but I felt there was no real closure, and no real purpose to the actual story itself, when I got to the end. I was waiting for some sort of climax that never really happened. To be honest, as soon as I put the book down, I promptly forgot all about it, so I can’t really remember any questions I did have. I can see why you and others love it so much, but to me it was just a very long winded novel about not very much, and having read a huge number of wonderful life changing novels in my time, for me, the 800 pages of The Luminaries weren’t worth the time I would rather have spent reading something that affected me on a deeper level. That’s just me, though – and as I always try to do, I did give a balanced review and explained exactly why I didn’t enjoy the book, so people could make an informed decision about whether they wanted to read it or not. I’m delighted that you feel so impassioned about it though – maybe one day I will tackle it again and see the brilliance you did!

    2. Marama, I’m glad you enjoyed The Luminaries and felt so compelled to study it in such detail. It’s always a joy when a book grabs hold of you in such a way. I don’t think I have ‘rubbished’ the book, however – I always take great care to look at both sides in my reviews, and I always give very specific reasons as to why a book has not captured my imagination. I certainly wouldn’t call myself a ‘lazy’ reader, either – I am an English teacher by trade so analysing books is kind of my job and I am not one to read a book in order to switch off my brain. The Luminaries simply did not work for me – and I don’t think it makes me lazy or inferior in intellect to say so! I didn’t find it compelling enough to want to finish it the first time, let alone three times, I’m afraid! That is the joy of literature – we all respond to novels in different ways. I can quite understand your passion for the book and your desire to enlighten others of its marvels, but I think expecting the average person to spend the time involved in reading an 800 page book 3 times in order to fully appreciate it is more than a little unrealistic!

    3. Hear, hear! SO glad to read this positive review. I heartily and totally concur. It was AMAZING. And worth all the work it takes to absorb it all.
      I’m envious of your three reads! That’s just fabulous. Me? I will wait for it come out in paperback — my wrists hurt from holding that tome up. 🙂

    4. Interesting comments. I agree with the bookssnob pretty much on this review, but you make some valid points. I am well read but am not that interested in structure and intricate details – thus the book did not appeal to me. (I read Joyce’s “Ulysses” twice and studied it extensively – at the end, I understood it but still felt a bit hollow and like I’d wasted my time because apparently I do not ‘get’ structure and cleverness in a novel.) Thanks for your comments!

    5. Marama, I completely agree with your comments… almost as if some astral phenomenon was connecting my experience to yours…
      I admit that I started reading The Luminaries ready to hate it, but determined to finish it (as it had been assigned as a Book Club book). My mother is a librarian and had said that nearly all borrowers were returning the book unfinished and I expected to join their ranks. However, the characters, the mysteries and the language just captivated me. I confess that I found the first 150 pages or so a bit of a struggle, but once the “scene was set” I was hooked. I too went through the last half at breakneck speed, in fact it took me over a month to read the first half of the book, and only a week to read the second half. In some ways I wish I had read it slower, as I will never be able to read it for a first time again, but I just couldn’t help myself!
      I was absolutely captivated by The Luminaries. When the “twist” finally revealed itself to my obtuse brain, I actually gasped out loud. Suddenly all the little clues, the loose threads, the shadows in the corners came together and the picture they formed absolutely captivated me.
      I just can’t praise it highly enough.
      However, having said that, I understand that it may not be for everyone. Only a few of my Book Club actually finished it, and one lady who said she absolutely loved it had not come to the same conclusion about what had actually happened as I had… perhaps we can all have our own true truths?
      The New York Times review captures a lot of my feelings towards The Luminaries, especially this paragraph:
      “It’s… like doing a Charlotte Brontë-themed crossword puzzle while playing chess and Dance Dance Revolution on a Bongo Board. Some readers will delight in the challenge, others may despair. I went both ways: always lost in admiration for this young New Zealander’s vast knowledge and narrative skill, sometimes lost in her game, wishing at times for more warmth, delighted by her old-school chapter headings (“In which a stranger arrives . . . ”  “In which Quee Long brings a complaint before the law . . . ”), puzzled by her astrology, Googling everything twice and three times, scratching my head, laughing out loud, sighing with pleasure at sudden connections, flipping back pages and chapters and whole sections for re-readings, forging ahead with excitement renewed.”
      I should be clear; I’m not trying to convert anyone to my point of view, but had to post something, as I was so glad to find others who had the same wonderful experience of The Luminaries as I did.
      For anyone who thinks they might like to give it a try or who is not loving it, I would say please try and get to the end of the first section (half of the book) before you call it quits. Hopefully you, like me, will not regret it.

      1. Yes, I am one of those who absolutely TREASURED it.

        Also, I am quite despondent now that I will never ever again have a “first time” through it. Though I do plan on waiting a long while before re-reading it, in the hope of keeping its heart “fresh” and surprising.

        It was amazing.

        [I may be unusual, because my favorite novel of all time is Moby-Dick.]

  16. First of all, thank you for your comments. I’m sorry you took my remarks personally. I was speaking generally after having read some very ill-informed and totally negative reviews. One person complained about the book because there was too much rain. “Why was it always raining?” she whined. Well, that’s what it does on the West Coast. The other thing I’d like to clear up is I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone else to read The Luminaries, or any other book, three times.
    Second, I must take you up on some claims you’ve made in your review that are just plain wrong. In the third paragraph you state: “There was so much potential material to explore. What did it feel like to board a ship for a new life, knowing you’d never return? What was it like to be lonely and afraid in a new country, with nothing and no one to your name? What did Anna Wetherell, the exploited prostitute, feel when she realised she had walked into a trap as soon as she stepped onto New Zealand soil? How did the Maoris feel at having their country taken from them?”
    All of these questions are answered in the story. I could give you all the page references, but I’ll deal with just one, because I can’t understand how you missed it. You ask “How did the Maoris feel at having their country taken from them?” Go to Page 98, 3rd paragraph beginning “The iwi to which Tauwhare belonged…” “This paragraph ends with the sentence: ‘Every time he thought about the wealth his people ought to have commanded, Tauwhare felt a swell of anger in his chest – an anger so bitter and tormented that it manifested as pain.” That seems to me to be an emotional depths that has been plumbed
    You go on to say, “We never really get to see inside the characters’ heads…” Another reviewer complained that we spend altogether too much time in their heads. If you read pages 98 and 99 again, you will find we certainly see inside Tauwhare’s head, and also inside his heart. We feel the shame of his betrayal and his need for utu.
    Third, there’s the question of whether the mystery is solved or resolved. I would say it’s neither. We’re given a hint of this early on by Tauwhare (105 – 6). When asked the meaning of Hokatika, he said, “Understand it like this… Around then back again, beginning.”
    Finally, I used to carry a copy of Hamlet in my pocket wherever I went. Now I carry The Luminaries. I’ve had to get a bigger pocket.

  17. What a relief it was to find your review, book snob – I was beginning to think that I was missing something about this book that so many folks have raved about. I too felt somewhat cheated by the lack of resolution in the story, and while the construction of the book is highly ingenious, this doesn’t make up for the feeling of wading through the various narrative strands in the first third / two thirds of the story with not enough character development to help you keep the strands under control in your head. I’m not a “lazy reader” (I read Wilkie Collins’ “Armadale” notorious for having one of the most convoluted plots in English fiction and managed that fine, to give only one example) and if I’d wanted “to be taken on a joyride” I would have chosen another book altogether.

    Before I read the comments above, it occurred to me that the only way I could solve my problems with this book would be to write notes on each chapter as I went along, paying particular attention to dates and who’s talking to whom – but what that suggests to me is not a novel but a pretentious literary exercise. One might indeed wish to read a great book a number of times to absorb everything it has to say, but to have to study a text so intently just to establish who does what and how and to whom

  18. I’m a bit late to the discussion here, but I felt exactly the same way about The Luminaries as you did, Rachel! An intricate plot, an intriguing premise and some interesting characters (Emery Staines stands out), but ultimately so disappointing b/c of the lack of heart. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

  19. You’ve perfectly encapsulated what I felt while reading it! I thought Catton began well, some rich atmospheric descriptions, and her style felt very Victorian. Sadly a couple of hundred pages later it became a slog, in my opinion bogged down by too many details. Even her prose seemed a little forced (or maybe my tired mind viewed everything through a dusty lens😛 )
    I read a couple of reviews and excerpts from her first novel The Rehearsal, which looked more promising. Have you read that? Would love your opinion🙂

    1. I’m glad you agree, though I’m sorry you had to slog through a book you didn’t entirely enjoy! I was thinking about that as I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – now that’s a long and dense book that’s definitely worth the reading time invested in it. The Luminaries might be well written, but the story is dull! I haven’t read The Rehearsal, no – I’m in no rush to read more of her work, to be honest, but it is shorter which is always a plus!

  20. Hi there! I just finished reading this book and I immediately googled ‘questions about The Luminaries’ because I have a burning question! I couldn’t find any comments on this specific matter, so I thought I might ask you, if that’s ok? I know it’s been a while since you read it now… but anyway, I’ll try! In part 7, there’s a chapter called ‘The Ascendant’ in which Crosbie speaks to Te Rau. but the date on the top is January 27 1866, and Crosbie died January 14, the night when everything happened… I’m so confused… I can’t quite believe this is a mistake, so I’m trying to figure out what I missed… any insights? many thanks!

  21. I’ve just finished it. July 2016. Read it in about a week. First 100 pages astonishing in their faux-Victorian skill, but you get used to that and then the next 780 pull you along at a cracking pace…great characters, great set-pieces. However, the last 20 or so disappointed me…especially when I realized I’d worked ‘it’ all out from the get-go. I’d hoped for a more unexpected ‘reveal’…and the astrological framing was colourful but incomprehensible. Would i recommend it as a read? MMMMMM. Not sure.

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