Book review: 'The Luminaries'

Setting of Booker-prize winning book by Eleanor Catton bears similarities to Juneau

When it was announced that Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” had won the 2013 Man Booker Prize, I got excited. Really excited. Christmas came twice excited.


It was billed as an 830-page murder mystery set in the 1860’s West Coast New Zealand gold rush with an intricate astrological structure. How could I resist?

I couldn’t. Within hours I’d bought the book and for the next 12 days I was lost in it. I read for hours only to stay up at night thinking over the plot, wondering at Catton’s wonderfully drawn characters, annoyed that seemingly simple answer to it all was evading me.

It is, in short, the best d—mn book I’ve read in a long time. It contains not only one of the best first pages and one of the sweetest last pages, but, in between, Catton’s uniformly awesome writing.

“The Luminaries” is both a murder mystery and a love story. The murder mystery takes up much of the reader’s attention. It’s not so much the possibility of murder as a whole set of unexplained events — all of which feel like they should have a simple explanation, an explanation that is just avoiding us at the moment. One character sums up this aspect of the book succinctly when he says “He’s a murderer, though I’ll be d—mned if I could tell you how or why.”

The love story sneaks in underneath all the murder and mystery. It is often sad but also incredibly sweet. As one of the lovers testifies in court: “Love cannot be reduced to a catalogue of reasons why, and a catalogue of reasons why cannot be put together into love. Any man who disagrees with me has never been in love — not truly.”

Two other elements are important to the story: the setting and the structure.


Hokitika: A New Zealand Juneau

The action of Catton’s story takes place in the town of Hokitika, a place that is likely to feel familiar to Juneauites. Founded on gold, briefly the provincial capital, Hokitika’s defining characteristic is its weather. It rains.

“In Hokitika, it had been raining for two weeks without reprieve. Moody’s first glimpse of the township was of a shifting smear that advanced and retreated as the mist blew back and forth. There was only a narrow corridor of flat land between the coastline and the sudden alps…”

I looked it up and Hokitika actually gets twice as much rain as Juneau does. Twice. That’s 114 inches a year compared to our 62 inches. No worries though, because Ketchikan’s still got them beat at 154 inches a year.

And Juneauites can certainly understand the feeling a character expressed on the one sunny day in the novel: “It’s a glorious hell of a day! Why, it almost makes one forgive the rain, does it not — when the sun comes out like this, at the end of it all.”

The area around Hokitika wasn’t inhabited by Europeans until after the discovery of gold. Previously it had been the home of the Poutini Ngai Tahu (Maori). The Hokitika Museum website describes the origins of the West Coast gold rush: “Gold was discovered near the Taramakau river in 1864 by two Poutini Ngai Tahu pounamu hunters, Ihaia Tainui and Haimona Taukau. A European, Albert Hunt, publicized the find, claiming the discovery and reward for himself.” (This story seems familiar.)

According to the Museum, the discovery of gold brought a flood of new inhabitants to the area: “At the end of 1864 the population of Maori and itinerant miners was estimated at 1,800. Within two years there were 30,000 people on the West Coast.”

At the height of the gold rush, the city boasted 102 hotels and three opera houses. Its port was both busy and treacherous — there were 108 strandings and 32 ships lost on the shifting bar formed by the river between 1865 and 1867. Two shipwrecks play an important role in “The Luminaries”.

Catton made many trips into the West Coast as a child. She told the Greymouth Star that the region “was part of my imagination, growing up. I always wanted to write about it.” She admits to being somewhat “fast and loose” with the history of the region — including having a Chinatown at Kaniere which didn’t exist until later.


Astrology: More than just the zodiac

The structure of “The Luminaries,” which is based on astrology, is one of the most curious aspects of the book. The book is divided into 12 sections, each half the size of the one before. Hence the first section is 360 pages. The last is two pages. Thus the entire book wanes like the moon.

But other than this you can be as involved as you want with the astrology. You can ignore it and just enjoy the writing, or try to find new and hidden meanings in it that further illuminate the text.

When I began the book, I largely ignored the astrology (my policy toward astrology more generally). Sure there was the weird foreword about precession, the character list that divided the cast into the groups of Stellar (12 character), Planetary (7 characters) and Terra Firma (one character), and the charts at the beginning of each section. But without paying much attention to that I still managed to greatly enjoy the book.

It wasn’t until I was halfway through the book that I realized that a greater knowledge of astrology might help me with one confusing element — the chapter titles. Most of the chapter titles follow the format of “planet in constellation” (e.g., “Mercury in Sagittarius”). The charts at each section assign each of the Stellar characters to a constellation (Aries, Taurus, etc). And the additional seven symbols within the chart represent the Planetary characters. These seven symbols are for the seven classical “planets” of astrology (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).

Eventually I realized that the chapter titles mean that one of the Planetary characters is interacting with a Stellar character. For example, “Mercury in Sagittarius” involves the interaction of the characters Moody and Balfour.

Catton doesn’t come out and tell you which of the seven Planetary character goes with each symbol, but it’s not terribly difficult to figure out. Catton takes this application of astrology very seriously. For example, Mercury is only visible for a short period of time in New Zealand, and so Moody’s time in the book is similarly short.

“I had his arc plotted out,” Catton told the Telegraph. ‘I knew he had about four months before he had to set.”

The astrology was central to Catton’s development of the book: “I lit upon the idea quite early that I wanted to use the zodiac as the key signature of the book. I needed a situation in which 12 men would be fixed in their relationship to one another and seven other characters would move in and out of this fixed wheel.”

And she told the Guardian: “The paradox is the relationship between, on the one hand, the characters being the masters of their fates, and on the other hand that being predetermined.”

This has lead some critics to find the book overly structured — more about fitting things into the pattern than developing the characters. I did not get that impression from Catton’s expertly drawn characters. Maybe on some level they’re predetermined archetypes, but aren’t all characters in books archetypes of some sort? And most don’t have the benefit of Catton’s skill.


About the author

Catton has the honor of being both the youngest Man Booker prize winner and the author of the longest book to win the prize. The native New Zealander was only 25 when she started writing and finished at age 27 — and this is her second published novel.

Her 2008 novel “The Rehearsal” received glowing praise — even more since she won the Booker — it’s been called “a marvelously peculiar and technically perfect story of a story within a story” and “fiendishly clever”.

In her own words:

“The idea that this could be the New Zealand novel is absurd because New Zealand is a bi-cultural nation — at the very least you need to have two.”

“I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel. In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are — about luck and identity and how the idea struck them. The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime.”

Contact Randy Spray at


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