The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

LuminariesThe Luminaries
Eleanor Catton

Little, Brown
Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize

I’ve woken up around 4am the past couple of nights thinking about this book. My thoughts on it aren’t final but this is a space where conversations happen, and I need to talk.

The Luminaries is an engaging page-turner, a mystery set in a 19th Century New Zealand gold town. It’s a successful pastiche of the Victorian novel, with omniscient narration (informing and withholding from the reader at will; describing the physical appearance and temperament of characters in detail). The Luminaries is also an intellectual feat, due to its engagement with the astrological calendar and with each chapter being half the length of the one previous.

It begins with Walter Moody, interrupting a private meeting of twelve men at the Crown Hotel in Hokitika. He becomes the listener for their combined tale, involving death, gold, prostitution, mistaken identities, shipping crates, opium, and elements that will remain mysterious (due to an implied element of the fantastical) at the book’s end. The second half of the book details events and incidents that have unfolded after the knowledge gained at the Crown meeting, gives us more insight into the peripheral (or ‘planetary’) characters involved, and immerses the reader in the original events, from a different point of view.

I’m a big fan of Catton’s book The Rehearsal and I found The Luminaries a delightful, fast-paced read. Having read her two (very different) books I have so much admiration for Catton’s intellect, ambition, range and depth. The details of Hokitika and the range of fascinating (and often nasty) characters reminded me of watching a season of Deadwood. I wondered if at the end I had read it too quickly, though, as I wasn’t sure whether I’d missed one crucial ‘nugget’ of information, or whether it was supposed to be slightly open-ended; that the reader was supposed to draw their own final conclusion from the information given. I will have to read it again, as I know the whole first section will become richer after the perspectives gained in the rest of the book, particularly regarding Anna Wetherell (of the ‘old profession’) and boy wonder Emery Staines. I think there is also a lot more to think about in regards to the Chinese goldsmith Quee Long.

I’d love to discuss the book, if you’ve read it, but let’s mark any spoilery comments so those yet to experience The Luminaries know to avoid them… And I’m still travelling, so do forgive me if I end up taking a little while to reply.

13 thoughts on “The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

  1. Yes! I agree with everything you’ve said. I had so many questions at the end of the book. And like you I wondered whether these were deliberately not answered or neatly tied up, contributing to Cattan’s subversion of the conventional novel form, which would have done this. Was she mocking this form, gently prodding her readers to question their expectations? I’d love to hear her speak about this actually.

    (And I loved The Rehearsal too)

    • So glad you had the same reaction, I’d love to hear her speak about it too! I saw her speak about the book at Edinburgh Book Fest, and she was amazing, but of course she’s limited at festivals in terms of what she can say about the plot. But then if she has left a few strings untied she probably would not want to talk about it anyway, since that would be the point!

      It’s exactly what happened at Crosbie’s that I can’t quite get straight, ie. the laudanum. And I also try to piece together whether all the gold is accounted for at the end. There’s still that dress that Gascoigne has… And was Quee smelting the ‘salted’ gold from Mannering’s plot and branding it as well? I really just need to read it again. I think I understand what really happened to Staines (he was indeed in that crate and took a wayward mystical bullet).

      • ****SPOILERS*****

        Loved reading your thoughts., Angela. Yes, Emery was in that crate, and took the wayward bullet. The way the twinned lovers suffered from the laudanum overdoes, too, was wonderful. I think part of the reason it won the Booker was because the judges read the shortlisted works three times and on each reading you would discover something new. It’s that kind of book. I, too, want to read it again, but I might get to The Rehearsal first!. Cheers, John

      • *****SPOILERS*****

        Hi John,
        yes, I loved that about the lovers, too. And I love how their connection was so slowly revealed. Three times is probably the right amount indeed!

  2. At first, I sunk deep into the world of this book and just loved it and gasped at Catton’s brilliance. But, by the end of the book I felt like a disgruntled lover. In the end I found this book to be self indulgent and arrogant and, as a reader, I regretted my own investment in it. I wanted more. Expected more. Desired more. While I can acknowledge the incredible talent, brilliance and achievement, in the end I found it to be structurally pretentious and a bit cold and soulless. One day I may read it again and find something else….but then there are so many books, so little time….but then life is long……..

    • While I didn’t share your response, Julianne, I can understand it. I didn’t find the book cold—I admire and get excited by ambition, and scope—but I did feel the set-up was not entirely matched by the conclusion (but I think much thought has gone into why that is, hence my wanting to read it again). It’s true that life is short and there are so many books, I hope you’re enjoying your current read!

      • The Luminaries is undeniably a hugely ambitious and a magnificent achievement despite my disappointment at the level of artifice. Just wanted to add that I really enjoyed your post on Michael Cunningham and, based on that and the other books by him that I have read, I think I’ll read “By Nightfall” next.

  3. I’m in the admire but finished feeling I wanted more camp too. I wanted something I could hang it all on and say that in the end it was about this, but perhaps that’s too simplistic of me! I’m still working on it and am planning a second post. I’m glad I read it, but what an investment in time and energy it was.

  4. it is for seeking clarification for the “loose ends” of the Luminaries that directed me here to your blog (well, tip of my hat also to Google). As someone who has just finished the book and was unable to contain the urge for a more lucid or fuller accounts of what actually happened on 14th January, 1866 in Hokitika, I think your perspective that the author left the detail intentionally hazy is by far the most believable one. (i have browsed several other comments but found whichever guess is not solid enough to thread all the facts set out in the novel.) My feeling is that after reading it, the most engaging part of the book (or should i say the most valuable part) is how the story is constructed and evolved, how the plots were revealed to us, and how the atmosphere is built up to climaxes (i think there are more than one in the book). i think the book actually is not centered on the facts or the intricacy of the crime (for the actually execution of the crime is not very complex, as there are many ways to intoxicate Crosbie, and many ways to account for the whereabouts of emery staines. and one account has actually been laid out in the courtroom, regardless of the minor inconsistencies to the fact thus far) I assume that author’s intention is to lead us to a journey in which, through the knowledge from the many aspects of the people concerned, we learn a “whole truth”, which in turn gives us a vivid and broad picture of humanity. in addition, by purposefully obscure the details (and possibly left something to the supernatural), the author also sets her departure from the more conventional storytelling in which accuracy of details and corroboration of the facts are critical to the completeness of novel. thank you!

  5. I have just finished the book this morning, after three weeks. Like others, I too, am left with questions, but I think is ok, it’s all right for uncertainty. Who knows whether it is a deliberate act on that part of the author and does it really matter?
    I have some confusions too, notably about the whereabouts of Emery Staines as evidence seems to fit that he took the bullet from Anna’s gun, in her room…but then how to account for Moody’s ‘vision’ as he is not a fanciful man, and how to account for how/who put him in the crate?
    The story is not as complex as it seems from the first half – set in 1866 – which could be a little disappointing, or not? I agree with a previous contributor here, parts of a story making a whole, but also the various perspectives lead the reader into lots of possibilities. Some of the characters in the first half – Balfour is one – are really fairly incidental in the end, although he assumes an important role at the start of the book.
    I guessed a few things along the way – Lydia and Francis were clear conspirators, and I guessed too that the Anna was pregnant to Crosbie – before reading the 1865 accounts. It was good to read the 1865 stories, as these brought many things together – hence the experience for me that the central story was ‘simple’, made more complex by the reader’s interaction with the various perspectives.
    What happened to the letters that Crosbie wrote to Lauderback – I had the sense that Lauderback didn’t receive them until too late – but I could be wrong about that. Lauderback did reply to Crosbie – did Crosbie ever receive it? Are we meant to assume that Moody just misses meeting his father as Adrian arrives in Hokitika as Moody is leaving? What is the purpose of introducing the Irishman Paddy Ryan – is it to suggest that Walter Moody will tell him the story therefore suggesting to the reader that there will be yet another version? The gunshot on p818 as Carver and Anna meet – who fired that and for what purpose?
    Ah, so many questions…finally, all the characters, it seems to me, weave fact and fiction, truth and lies – which is great and perhaps reflective of life – who, after all, decides what the truth is?
    The book obviously has transported me, as I have never written anything about a book before in this context – make of this what you will!

  6. I’m feeling the same confusion as others, and particularly about Crosby’s death, as Angela noted above. Since Catton was so meticulous about giving readers all the necessary details to figure out what happened to Staines (as Angela also noted), and following up on the idea that one can get at the truth by seeing things from all perspectives, I figure that the clear answer to what happened to Crosby must be there. Why so many details about laudanum? There was a phial with Pritchard’s label on it that Crosbie drank, but there was also the unlabeled bottle that Lydia ordered, and the later incident where Anna passed out from the laudanum that Staines took for his shoulder pain. And I think I recall either Pritchard or Carver saying that Carver never bought laudanum from him. How did the phial get into the cabin (as Pritchard wondered as well)? Why did Moody make a point at the trial of saying that the post mortum showed that there was only a little laudanum in Well’s stomach. But then, of course maybe I’m overthinking! After all, the book ends with Carver uncorking the bottle and Wells drinking it.

  7. Two more thoughts. First, I love Steve’s summary. Well said. Also, regarding what Caroline said:

    “I have some confusions too, notably about the whereabouts of Emery Staines as evidence seems to fit that he took the bullet from Anna’s gun, in her room…but then how to account for Moody’s ‘vision’ as he is not a fanciful man, and how to account for how/who put him in the crate?”

    This is my take on what happened (copied from a post I left on Goodreads, which also has interesting posts):

    On 1/14 he spends the night with Anna. On 1/15, Anna wakes up and is upset, thinking he can’t love her, so she takes opium. Since Staines is her astral twin, he feels the effects of the opium, falls, hits his head on Gibson Quay and collapses into Lauderback’s open shipping crate left there by the dockside crew, who, without seeing him, nail up the crate in the dark. He spends two weeks living in the crate sustained by Anna (who had collapsed in the street when Staines hit his head). 1/27 he is found by Moody in the crate. Just at that moment, Anna fires her gun into her breast, which instead injures Staines, though he is far away. Then the ship sinks and he washes up on shore. Anna sustains him during his time in the wilderness, getting thinner and thinner.

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