The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: Deserving of the Man Booker, Not My Book of the Year

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. Goodreads summary of The Luminaries.

The Luminaries praise and criticism
The Luminaries: a great achievement but not
quite my book of the year. Image source.

Some time ago, I read a superb article by Eleanor Catton in The Guardian. She wrote about New Zealand and the differences between North and South Island, and I tried my hardest to absorb the writing and the awe-inspiring scenery she described. There would absolutely be no skim reading here, I thought.

This article was the primary reason why I wanted to read The Luminaries. I wasn’t particularly interested in reading it just to say I’ve read the Man Booker winner – an eight-hundred page one at that – and tick it off my reading list, but rather I wanted to see what Catton was capable of.

I was given the hefty hardback edition of The Luminaries for Christmas, and in a few days I had got through a considerable chunk of the book. I was enjoying it, despite the slow start that other reviewers have touched upon, but as the book progressed I realised I wasn’t going to give it five stars.

Why The Luminaries deserves the Man Booker

  • The Luminaries is a remarkable story of society and its intertwining classes, cultures and collective and individual aspirations. Memorable characters include Emery Staines and the Maori character Te Rau Tauwhare, who weaves through the lives of characters and draws them towards reflection.
  • Catton’s writing gave me an authentic impression of the era, and you can tell she’s spent a good deal of time researching and emulating Victorian writers.
  • I’ve never read anything like it before, and I wouldn’t dream of calling the novel unoriginal. If anything, I’d perhaps compare it to Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, with an echo of Dickens’s Great Expectations and some Wilkie Collins.

Why it’s not going to be my book of the year

  • I wanted to know more about the characters, particularly Walter Moody (the protagonist who brings the reader into Hokitika). As the characters came close to showing their true selves, they seemed to flee just as quickly.
  • When I finish a favourite book, I want to savour the hopes and dreams of characters I relate to or aspire to be like. Even years after first reading them, I’ll be imagining the sublime landscapes or well-written scenes of great novels. My favourite books forge memories that warm my heart and bring me right back into the story. Why did The Luminaries not leave me with fond memories? Why didn’t it strike a chord with me?
  • This may be due to my own insufficiencies, but I didn’t completely understand the astrological framing device or what it added to the story. Should I revisit the novel and pay more attention to this, perhaps?
While The Luminaries is an incredible feat, and Catton is wonderfully suited to being at the forefront of female writing, it wasn’t perfect. It could have been a five-star read, but there was nothing that I particularly loved about it or found exceptional. I’m very excited about what Catton will go on to write, and I’m keen to read her first novel. This just wasn’t the one for me.
Have you read The Luminaries? Did you find it flawless or, like me, did you find it slightly lacking? Would you recommend that I read it again?

Relaxing with The Luminaries and wine
Reading The Luminaries with some wine – why not?

Lucy
It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.