The Luminaries Book Review

Published in 2013, Luminaries was written by the New Zealand novelist Eleanor Catton. The Luminaries was her second book, following the 2008 publication of The Rehearsal.

The Luminaries Book Review

In 2013, The Luminaries won Catton the Booker Prize, making her the youngest winner to ever receive the prestigious award. But what about The Luminaries makes it such a compelling read? 

In this article, we’ll discuss a summary of The Luminaries, give our review and verdict of the novel, and tell you a little bit more about Eleanor Catton and her other works. 

A Summary of The Luminaries

Set in 1866, The Luminaries is a historical novel that focuses on the young Walter Moody, a prospector who has arrived to make a fortune in the New Zealand goldfields.

Upon his arrival, he stumbles into a meeting held between twelve local men who gather to discuss a collection of strange events. They discuss the disappearance of a wealthy man, a prostitute who attempted suicide, and the fortune discovered in the home of a down-on-his-luck drunk. 

Moody finds himself drawn into the mysteries surrounding him as fate ties each and every one of these characters together.

With a complex structure, this novel is heavily based on Western astrology, and each local man represents one of the zodiac signs. In contrast, Moody and other characters represent the planets in the solar system.

Separated into twelve sections, The Luminaries is a lengthy novel that consists of over 800 pages. Seeing the length of this novel, we can see how similar it is to the likes of Victorian mysteries.  

Review of The Luminaries

The best way to describe The Luminaries is to think of it as a murder mystery, even if you’re not sure that there’s a murder.

Instead of investigating a dozen suspects, we have a dozen investigators who are attempting to solve a mystery without knowing where the mystery lies and only a small handful of clues. Even if they know anything, they don’t have any control as the astrological charts move the plot forward.

Essentially, Eleanor Catton has written a detective story that doesn’t have a detective. However, you don’t need a detective, as all the luminaries are around town waiting to get any info they can get. 

Usually, a novel of this genre would start with an unsolved crime, but that’s not what happens here. We begin The Luminaries with the possibility of several crimes. Emery Staines, a wealthy man, has disappeared.

A recluse named Crosbie Wells died mysteriously on the same night as the disappearance. Elsewhere, a prostitute called Anna Wetherell is found drugged and unconscious in the street. 

When Walter Moody arrives in town, he’s haunted by a strange encounter he experiences on a boat in the harbor, and he’s not sure if there is a crime or he’s hallucinating.

While a single crime could allow for an explanation, with all of them occurring at the same time, it suggests the stars are no longer aligned in their favor. 

As we mentioned earlier, this is set during the 1860s in a New Zealand gold rush town. We’ve noticed how The Luminaries seems similar to a Victorian novel in the way it engages its readers.

There are layers of complicated plots and a wide cast of characters. Still, we’re uncertain whether Catton is simply parodying these historical novels.

Throughout the novel, we can see each chapter heading get longer while the chapters themselves shrink. The characters no longer have any freedom, as the astrological charts guide them along this novel’s pre-destined and seemingly unforgiving ending.

If you ever find yourself wondering what maximalist fiction is, then you should take a look at The Luminaries.

The plot is incredibly convoluted. There are a host of different crimes and transgressions, including adultery, blackmail, forgery, fraud, mistaken identity, narcotics, smuggling, and so much more. Everywhere you go, there’s something new happening, and it’s hard to keep track of who is guilty of what.

While this is a book steeped in realism, Catton occasionally leaves this to welcome supernatural aspects of the novel. It’s a bold move, especially as The Luminaries relies on explanations to make sense of the events going on.

Not many authors have the daring to explain that part of the solution is to accept the unexplained. This book is an enigma, and while these risks are impressive, it doesn’t mean that everything works.

There’s a lot of ambition in The Luminaries, but sometimes, it’s a little too ambitious. The narrative revolves around finding the hidden connections in the plot. Still, there’s no time to breathe and get to know the 18th-century frontier.

Even with 800 pages, the pacing is still somehow rushed. In fact, when Moody arrives to get an update on the investigation, they spend almost as long as the novel itself to reveal the information.

Frustratingly, we need other incidents to happen from multiple perspectives before we get any understanding of why they’re significant.

The astrological charts don’t help, especially if you don’t care much for horoscopes and star charts. All they do is add to the confusion, as it is these elements that control the threads of the plot.

What’s The Verdict?

Despite some of my misgivings, we respect the sheer bravado of this kind of intricate plot.

There’s a lot going on, and somehow, despite the saturation of threads, Catton still balances each one against the other. She doesn’t simply throw these details in for no reason; each one needs to be there to ensure the story works.

Some say that storytelling is the soul of a narrative. If that’s true, then The Luminaries is a truly soulful novel. It makes sense for a novel that focuses on the pre-destined and supernatural, and it links to the tone of the novel. 

While we do have unanswered questions, there are many questions still to be answered about some of the characters and incidents within.

However, while this could be classed as a failure due to the scope and ambition of the novel, instead, you may feel like it’s an invitation to reread The Luminaries once more to gain a deeper understanding of the events that took place.

How you view Catton’s The Luminaries will depend on your own preferences. You may see her as a rebel who wants to destroy the conventions of genre or a poised seamstress of her craft.

Truthfully, it is best to view her as a bit of both. As this was Catton’s second novel, we can’t wait to see what she will do next and if she can live up to her Booker Award-winning novel.

About Eleanor Catton

Born in 1985, Eleanor Catton released her first novel, The Rehearsal, in 2008. The Rehearsal was written as her Master’s thesis for her Creative Writing degree. It would later get adapted into a 2016 film. 

The Rehearsal focuses on an all-girls high school where news of a teacher’s affair with an underage student has spread. Everyone is interested, and the teenage girls of the school obsessively examine the details of the affair as the saxophone teacher keeps watch on them all. 

When The Rehearsal came out, it won the Betty Trask Award and was longlisted for the Orange Prize. It was even shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

In 2013, The Luminaries was released and made Eleanor Catton the youngest winner of the Booker Prize. However, it was also the longest work to ever win the prize.

She was also awarded the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. She was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature at the Victoria University of Wellington. 

Her third novel, Birnam Wood, was published in February 2023. Birnam Wood focuses on Mira Bunting, the founder of a guerrilla gardening group, who are essentially climate activists.

Struggling with funds, they see the opportunity to take over a sizable farm after a natural disaster cuts off the town of Thorndike. However, an enigmatic American billionaire is also interested, and he suggests they work this land in this psychological thriller (If you like thriller stories, also check out The Last Thing He Told Me).

Since The Luminaries first released, it has been adapted into a BBC miniseries of the same name. She used her winnings from the New Zealand Post Book Awards to create the Lancewood/Horoeka Grant to offer a stipend to emerging writers to support them. 

Final Thoughts

Since 2008, Eleanor Catton has written three very different books. The Luminaries is her second novel and, arguably, her most famous. Since 2013, The Luminaries won her the Booker Prize; we can understand why. 

The Luminaries is a daring and thought-provoking novel that is perhaps a little too ambitious in its scope. There’s no doubt that it’s an amazing book. Still, there are times when it can get confusing as the astrological charts dictate each character’s movement.

Personally, we feel that The Luminaries is a testament to Catton’s daring as a writer, and we look forward to her future books. 

If you want to learn more about any novels, consider checking out our other reviews. We have a review for everyone. 

Sophie Andrea