The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton and the knowing influence of the infinite sky. (Book Review)

The Luminaries is a character driven novel in the style of the Victorian novel, meaning particular details about each character are written in small sidelines and circular explanatory asides that draw the reader close to each character, but also result in the kind of distant analysis that, for example, Jane Austen is so famous for. Character is the central drive for the plot, theme and style, and yet motivation is not part of what rockets the exciting narrative along; rather it is the almost accidental crossings of the key subjects, the way that given a certain time and a certain place, people will behave in certain ways, often distilling a kind of drive out from under their circumstances. In other words, character is very important only in so far as it divines the style of response to stimulus that each individual encounters. There is a strange and beguiling system at work in The Luminaries, and it is behind the events, the responses and the thoughts of everyone in the novel.

The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of The Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportment and dress – frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill – they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening on a public railway – deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.

The entirety of the novel is in its opening line; the men gave the impression of a party accidentally met.  Catton will use the complex systems of astrology to manoeuvre her characters so that their interactions appear like the steel marble of a pin ball, a great thrust hurling them into a series of challenges in which chance is the primary determinate. Catton’s twelve men (all representing a sign in the zodiac) and their satellite associations and relationships bump about and into each other in the confined space of the gold rush town of Hokitika, their character portrait painted via their response and their almost always skewed perception of themselves, for the pleasure of the reader. For Catton astrology is a tool (a word she uses to describe it and one I have used myself) and not a method of divination. In this way, the richness of character is coupled with a remarkable sense of nothingness.  The Luminaries comes down in the end to a novel about fate and fortune and the way that humans are tossed about within the box of destiny with very little opportunity for self-control.


And yet, there is no shortage of humourous and witty judgement for the characters that turn out to be unscrupulous, or, in the case of every character, making mistakes. The downright cleverness of The Luminaries is rather that behavioural choices are made, but good or bad behaviour isn’t a promise of any sort of consequence. There is no god in The Luminaries, and there is no natural order, even if there may be characters that rely on such notions. Instead, Catton uses the patterns of the heavens, time, date and location to impose any sort of drive for the narrative, so that the reader is watching for what each personality type will do with the circumstances that at all time occur as a strange battle between chaos and control.  The very existence of these twelve men at the same time in the same place implies a divine order imposed from something somewhere, but the ensuing chaos as destiny unfolds speaks very much to chance. There is no character development, no one will grow, shrink or learn. Each is their own mini planet whizzing around the universe of Hokitika in the late 1860’s imagining they know who they are and where they are and really having no idea.


Therefore the pleasure of The Luminaries is exactly the same as the pleasure of life; what you see is what you get and what you get is what you can joyfully glean out any given moment. Among all this blustering character analysis weighed down by its owners imagined self-importance, is a lovely writing style that bounces the novel with a joyous appreciation of life and all the creatures involved in it:

“Walter Moody was not superstitious, though he derived great enjoyment from the superstitions of others, and he was not easily deceived by impression, though he took great care in designing his own.”

“As might be expected he was given to bouts of very purposeful ignorance, and tended to pass over the harsher truths of human nature in favour of those that could be romanticised by whimsy and imagination.”

“Devlin believed himself to be a virtuous man and his self-conception remained, in the face of all contradiction impregnable.”

“He had always been irreproachable in his conduct, and as a consequence, his capacity for empathy was small.”


Even if The Luminaries central conceit is that chaos reigns (sort of) it still delights in the pleasures of the here and now, and perversely, in self-awareness. Catton uses multiple points of view and characters will interrupt each other and tell their version of events from a different place or perspective and it is in this weaving narrative that other aspects of the characters themselves come to light. The Luminaries is a big novel, but this is because Catton unravels her compelling murder mystery through all the differently involved characters with such tight control over the story. Despite all the cleverness of the astrological patterning and the wonderful word play, the fact that The Luminaries has no loose ends is its greatest strength. It’s astonishing, really, that a novel with so much interweaving detail can keep its ‘t’s’ crossed and its ‘i’s’ dotted, not to mention keeping the reader enthralled along the way. The readability his high, even when you feel a little lost (wait a minute, who just said that?) because the basic story is so compelling and the characters so starkly different.  The Luminaries is one of those books that spirals out from itself, so that if you want to read it again, there is ample to keep you entertained (despite knowing who killed who) and plenty to see as if for the first time.


Image by Robert Catto

There is so much more I could say about this wonderful novel! Best to hop of right now and read it for yourself.

The Luminaries has been short listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.