An Auspicious Ascendancy – The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

LuminariesEleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is an engaging, avant-garde novel, not to be read with the traditional expectations of the form, for it will entertain, intrigue, provoke, infuriate and keep you thinking about why it works, when certain aspects we know and love about stories, suggest that it shouldn’t. The allure of the new.

The Luminaries is a 19th century narrative, set in the gold –digging community of Hokitika ‘place of return‘, on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

In 1866, when the story takes place, it was a thriving community, expanding in the golden glint of its anticipated resource and one of the most populous towns in New Zealand, a far cry from it’s just over 3,000 inhabitants today. While it remains possible for visitors to try their luck at gold panning today, they are more likely to be cycling the West Coast wilderness trail or to taking a helicopter over the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers.

Hokitika township 1870s

Hokitika township 1870s – source Wikipedia

The story focuses on a group of people living in Hokitika, attracted by the prospects of finding gold or its associated business opportunities. It opens with the newest arrival, a distressed Thomas Moody, who has just disembarked from the barque Godspeed and after checking into the Crown Hotel, happens upon a gathering of 12 men in a bar of the hotel that had been closed for the evening. Already in the hotel, he had not been prevented from entering the room and thus becomes witness to a discussion of events that had occurred two weeks prior, the death of the hermit Crosbie Wells, the disappearance of the gold prospector Emery Staines, the arrest of a whore Anna Wetherell and the discovery of a cache of retorted gold bars.

As any 12 prominent men summoned to a room for a discussion might attempt to garner attention, so too does Catton give over chapters which allow those men to stand in their own limelight and this gathering will invoke a long and divergent narrative of stories, encounters and sharing of perspectives by each of the men present.

Their stories span the first half of the book, introducing a structural device Catton uses to divide the book into 12 parts, each successive part half the length of that before it, where the sequence of events moves about so that we reach the end only to discover we are at the beginning. We realise this is not a plot heading towards its climax, nor a beginning working towards its end, it is a series of revelations that unmask illusions of our own imagination as well as that of the characters portrayed and by the time we reach those last pages, the actual dramatic events that unfold will occupy fewer lines on the pages of this book than the mass of 400 plus ages that has allowed this community of men to discuss, analyse, reveal, conceal and pontificate on what might have occurred.

110611_1523_TheForestfo1.jpgAs fast as one mystery unravels, there arises another as Catton introduces one twist after another and slowly reveals the encounters and connections between characters, including those not present at the meeting.

The use of an omniscient narrator means that no one character plays a lead role, just as the lack of a detective precludes it from unravelling like a conventional mystery. Instead, it reads almost as a series of dramatic episodes, where the various interactions and focus on certain characters help the viewer/reader understand their ambitions and motivations, though like a jigsaw, the whole picture will not become clear until all the missing pieces are joined together.

The IdiotI was reminded at times of reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, a novel that is without comparison when it comes to penetrating character analysis, itself a complex web of relationships and associations. Catton’s insights into her characters perhaps owe more to her reading of Jung than Dostoevsky, as she penetrates the psychological depths of each character using lyrical prose. While these insights make pleasant reading, it is the actual interactions and actions of the characters that more ably create a lasting impression. As a consequence, we perceive the entire cast at a slight distance and may yearn for something more from some of them.

Much has been written elsewhere about the astrological structure and intention behind Catton’s writing, and it would be easy to turn this into as essay and begin to analyse twin hemispheres, yin and yang, predestined forces and those luminaries that represent our innermost and outermost selves whom she literalises in characters, however I have chosen to write more on the experience of reading the book, without focusing on the forces at play in their interactions. It is possible to listen to Eleanor Catton speak more on this at the Southbank reading here and in numerous articles in The Guardian and elsewhere.

It is an entertaining read, that despite its length I never wanted to put down and actually found myself wondering about other members of the community that don’t appear in the book, like the families of these characters and other inhabitants of this gold loving town. Perhaps we might get to meet them in a future TV adaptation, since I hear the rights have already been bought by a British production company.

Luminaries Cloud

44 thoughts on “An Auspicious Ascendancy – The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

  1. Excellent review. I have this in ebook form – couldn’t face wrestling with an 800 page tome – probably will read it next week while I’m away – not sure if I’m not a bit daunted by it though, it certainly sounds complex.


    • It actually reads like a mystery but without a lead investigator, it’s not a difficult read, she just used a complex structure to create it. What it does do though is prevent the reader from getting particularly attached to any of the characters.


  2. Great review Claire which fulfils the expectations of a potential reader desiring to know a little something about a novel which appears somewhat intimidating, not least because of its structural format. I love how you concentrated on a reading of the characters, instead of the underlying symbolism, and am especially intrigued at the comparison you make between this novel and one of my favourite authors, Dostoyevsky.


    • I agree the length is intimidating in these time-pressed times we live in, but for all the layers and structural complexity, it is a relatively easy read with plenty of action and dramatic turns. It doesn’t take itself too seriously in the delivery, be prepared to enjoy, even if you aren’t able to connect with a main protagonist.


  3. How authors structure their books is very much the focus of my research work so I’m really looking forward to reading this. However, at the moment I don’t have the time to give it the attention it deserves and so I think it’s going to have to wait until Christmas when I can close the doors, stoke up the fire and really settle down for a good long read.


    • Sounds like a good idea, this book really needs either a summer holiday or a cosy Christmas period of quiet so you can read it in one go, I actually woke early so I could read in one week knowing it would otherwise take me too long if I only read at night.

      There are so many layers in this book, in my notebook I wrote so much more that I have left out, because I wanted to just focus on the narrative and not scare readers off with all the intellectual rigour that lies behind it, because it’s not a difficult book to read at all.

      You might want to read her first book The Rehearsal as well, that’s an experimental novel in terms of form and something of a precursor for this, which is much more ambitious in its scope.

      I’m looking forward to the Christmas cosy reads, I haven’t thought about what I’ll read yet!


    • Neither can I Nelle, it is a lot of effort to structure a novel as she has and then to keep hold of all the threads in the story and to prevent the reader from second guessing, plot, structure, characters, astrology, Jung, 270,000 words divided into 12 diminishing parts, as if writing isn’t enough of a challenge! But for the reader, it is a straight forward enough read, nothing near as challenging as the effort required to create this opus.


  4. Good review Claire. Getting a copy soon. Only discordant note for me is the Astrology- what on earth
    Is a serious writer getting involved in that stuff for?. Regards Brian


  5. Fascinated to to read your analysis of this book, Claire. I started it two days ago, and finished it in bed last night at 2am… I really resonated with your statement that one never got close to any of the characters, which seemed to matter to me…I found the meeting of the twelve at the beginning absolutely gripping….As I read on I thought it was an immensely clever, complicated and brilliantly written book, but since I’m not a mystery or detective fan, I really had to make myself stick with it. At one point I found I didn’t care enough and wasn’t curious enough to want to persevere. But I did !
    I wished that I had better understood the astrological connections, which completely escaped me, and at the end I felt I had several unfinished twists, I hadn’t solved… What was the explanation of the apparition in the Godspeed’s hold. and if it wasn’t Carver who beat up Anna, why was it Crosbie, if it was him.?.. I found I didn’t care enough to go back and delve and see what I’d missed. I also seriously wondered if there was a hat shop for Anna and Lydia to visit in a mining town with few women and mostly whores, as Eleanor would say !!!
    At the end, I felt that I wanted this amazing writer to find a subject really worthy of her genius.
    I was awed by the immensity of the project and the research and really look forward to seeing what she does next.


    • Wow, you read it in two days! Well done, I can understand wanting to crack through it, we are all out of practice it seems in reading lengthy books, few people write them anymore.

      I think the omniscient narrator is one of the the causes for the distance, that and not deciding to take one character as the lead. It highlights one of the things we have come to expect from the novel, something I allude to in the first paragraph. It is also the actions, events and dialogue that really make a character three dimensional, not the psychological descriptions, so those whom we actually observe doing things rather than being talked about come more easily to mind. I found myself thinking about these characters to see what I remembered and it was always an encounter or a physical act I recalled.

      I’m not even sure we are supposed to be consciously aware of the astrological connections, there will be few who possess this knowledge to the degree required to detect them, it would almost require a masters degree of study to unravel that web! Good luck to any who decide to pursue it and thank you to Eleanor Catton for explaining her structural tools a little in various interviews.

      I did reread the last few pages when much of the explanation was in the introductory passages (in such tiny writing!!) and you are not the only one wondering about that apparition, myself included. Perhaps the TV series will reveal all 🙂

      The Hokitika wikipedia site mentions there being quite a few women living there, wives of the diggers among others, something I did wonder at, the lack of the balancing factor, it would have been good to see a formidable female presence, another luminary.

      Like you, I am intrigued to see what her next project will be, entirely unpredictable I am sure.


  6. Very deep and thoughtful review Claire. I heard it was a big and chunky book. I am not sure if I will read it as the past years Man Booker Prize winners don’t seem to appeal to me. One day perhaps. I think I should read more authors from NZ.


    • Thanks Jo, I haven’t read the Booker winner for a few years myself, I find the longlists more likely to be where I may find something appealing, however I knew I would read The Luminaries, after reading an excellent short story by Eleanor Catton in Granta and also her first book The Rehearsal, despite not having finished it. And of course to have a New Zealand writer given such prominence and acknowledgement is wonderful.


      • Yes it is nice to see an author from NZ given such recognition. Another NZ author that I read was Lloyd Jones “Mister Pip” and I love it. Good to know I am not alone on the Man Booker Winners selection and yes I am more likely to find something I like from the Long and shortlists!


  7. I enjoyed reading this insightful review.
    I relish books that delve into the psychology of the characters and this one seems to do that well. But there are many layers here that make it very appealing.


    • If you enjoy the psychology of characters, you will definitely relish this. In a way, it is a pity it is so long, because many of those passages bear rereading, which I did while I was on the page, but not so easy to come back too, given the monumental scale of this project. Sometimes we just have to let go and enjoy the read.


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    • I do hope you find the right time to pick it up again, sometimes it is just the timing, I usually save a big book like this for a holiday read, so put an extra effort into reading this during a busy period so as not to take weeks to read it. It is at least a well paced read.


  9. Beautiful review, Claire! I love the structure of the book – how each chapter is half the length of the previous chapter. It is also very interesting that the book ends with its beginning making it a circular story – looks very James Joyce-is and makes me also think of ‘Glaciers’ by Alexis Smith. The story being told through different points of view which describe what might have happened makes me think of the movie ‘Rashomon’. I loved the way you have alternated between a big font and a small font in your review – I don’t know whether it was intentional and whether you were paying homage to the structure of Catton’s book, but it is quite beautiful. Glad to know that inspite of its size, the book is not difficult to read. I have ordered it and I am hoping to read it soon. Thanks for this wonderful review.


    • Like a work of art, there is so much more to the story than what we experience as readers, something we can only admire and be slightly in awe of. That she is able to write such a gripping plot without getting bogged down in the history and yet writing in a narrative style of the time is inspiring.

      I like that you see a homage to the structure in my review, it wasn’t intentional and suggests to me the sympathetic artists eye in your view of the world Vishy. 🙂


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  11. I’ve got this book to read during my Christmas holiday break, so I only skimmed this review to avoid any spoilers!
    But I’ve noted it, so I can come back when I’ve finished the book 🙂


  12. Hello Claire, I’m interested in why you’ve described this as avant-garde because on the surface it just seems like a rather baggy Victorian novel. Do you think the astrological structure makes it a kind of oulipo?


    • Hi Lisa, I found it modern, experimental and unique, novel even (excuse the pun). I listened to much discussion about it including the author herself speaking about her approach and then the experience of reading the novel. I certainly couldn’t compare it to anything else I have read, except as I mention, it had for me, a similar effect to reading Dostoyevsky, whom I admire for his insight and depiction of character. Whether this is avant-garde, or merely my crude use of the word, I’m not entirely sure.

      I’ve only recently read about oulipo and couldn’t really comment on that.

      I thought the astrological structure made it an intriguing product, a little like packaging or design, and as a one-time reader, I didn’t read into the astrological significance, although it was interesting to hear about it in interviews etc. I am unlikely to gain that enlightenment as I rarely reread, but I am sure there will be those who will study and unravel the significance of it on the novel and its characters. It was interesting to read in an article by one of the judges the effect of each consequent reread and what it contributed to his understanding of the novel. It does intrigue me to know there are elements within it that are not apparent on a first reading.


      • Thanks, Claire, I don’t know much about Oulipo either, I just wondered …
        The whole astrological thing passes me by as I have never taken any interest in astrology – as I say, it seems like a Victorian novel in the same sort of way as Sea of Poppies is Victorian in style, the difference being that Sea of Poppies (and its sequel) has a theme of some social significance, whereas The Luminaries doesn’t, or none that I can see.
        And whereas I could read anything by Dickens 10 times over, I don’t think I’d be bothered re-reading this one to find out if there’s more to it than meets the eye.


  13. Hi Claire, Bonne Année ! I hope your year is off to a wonderful start. I was sent The Luminaries so searched to see if you have read it, and of course you have! (I have a history of a gold strike in the family, so it is intriguing to be immersed in this era). Good to see you have also discovered Ex Libris, it was one of the books that I shipped from Australia (having had to decide from 500 or so, and part with some of my beloved friends). I have also been reading a few of your episodes, since I am now the mother of a French national, life has changed and it is very interesting to read about your journey. There is not much ‘in the panier’ at this time of year but certainly plenty on the horizon, and each day is filled with new surprises. Warm wishes to you and your family, Vivienne xx (briefly saw Edith Wharton, wonder if you have read ‘A Motor Flight Through France’?)


    • Hi Vivienne and a Happy New Year to you too. Well, that’s the perfect winter read you now have, I hope you are enjoying it and imagining those ancestors! Ex Libris is a real gem and all the more special for being gifted.

      I had another comment today on the story I started writing which reminded me that I never finished it, in fact I had hardly started it, but some episodes aren’t easy to follow on from.

      I haven’t head of the Edith Wharton book, I must look it up, I like the sound of her as a character Ms Wharton and must visit her holiday home not far from here one day.

      Thank you so much for leaving a note and I wish you a bountiful panier for 2014.

      Claire xx


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  15. Excellent review, and though you analysed it much more knowledgeably than me, it seems we felt much the same way about it. I liked that it was a perfectly enjoyable read whether one ‘got’ all the structural and astrological stuff or not, and its complexity means that despite its length I feel it’s one that will benefit from re-reading…when I next have two weeks to spare!


    • Yes, I’m not a great re-reader though if I were a judge of a major literary prize, it might change things. 🙂 I do think it was a bit long and if it hadn’t had that structure, may have been edited down. But a great read. Thanks for stopping by and commenting and following.


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