Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries Book Cover The Luminaries [2013] – ★★★★1/2

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (T. S. Eliot).

What is the most intelligent, complicated and intricately-designed novel of this century? Eleanor Catton wrote it in 2013 and titled it The Luminaries. The winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2013, The Luminaries is a multi-layered tour-de-force, running about 820 pages, that tells the story of mysterious events, including a disappearance and a possible murder, taking place in a gold-mining town of Hokitika, New Zealand, in 1865 and 1866. To tell her story, Catton employs astrological charts, planetary positions and planetary relationships vis-à-vis zodiac constellations, thereby twelve leading male characters in her novel correspond to twelve zodiac signs, such as Scorpio or Sagittarius, and other characters relate to planets, such as Venus or Mercury. These characters’ interactions with each other take a complicated turn and, as we find out more about some eerie coincidences, undoubtedly influenced by astral positions, the mystery deepens and we uncover hidden relations, start to doubt our prior perceptions and come full circle to glimpse at the real truth. As Te Rau Tauwhare explains the origin of the word “Hokitika” to Balfour, “Understand it like this.Around. And then back again, beginning” [Catton, 2013: 106]. Beautifully-written and cleverly-construed, this rich in detail/description novel may be difficult for the reader to get into at first, but the book proves hugely rewarding and could really be called a modern classic. 

The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met” [Catton, 2013: 3], so begins the novel, starting on 27 January 1866. To the scene comes Mr Walter Moody, a Scotsman, who has arrived to Hokitika with the purpose to dig for gold, working alone. He has just disembarked from the barque Godspeed, and would like now to relax in the lounge of the Crown Hotel, not even aware that the room is being taken by twelve men in order to discuss their theories on mysterious events of the past months. Moody introduces himself to one of the men in the room – Thomas Balfour. At the point where Moody mentions that the captain of the vessel that delivered him to town was one Francis Carver, he is astonished to find out that, for the first time, all other eleven men now have his undivided attention. Balfour then starts to tell Moody the reasons the twelve men congregated today in the room, and the mystery is so profound and enigmatic, that Moody is immediately drawn into the affairs of the town. In a quid pro quo fashion, all twelve men then expect Moody to share his own story of his voyage to Hokitika and tell them all about the terrible things he apparently saw on board of Godspeed. Thus, Moody finds out that, on 14 January 1866, the richest man in town, Emery Staines, disappeared, a local prostitute, Anna Wetherell, was (rumoured) poisoned, and Crosbie Wells, a local hermit, was found dead under mysterious circumstances, and all at that time when a man of considerable influence, Alistair Lauderback, arrived to town to start his political campaign. To complicate matters, a great fortune was discovered at Crosbie’s place, and each man in the Crown Hotel room is somehow implicated (such as stands to profit from Crosbie’s death) in the mystery. Moody starts to ponder the events as told by Balfour, trying to discern, with his legal mind, what really happened, and what is still going on in Hokitika.

Like Walter Moody, we begin as outsiders to Hokitika, and it is really exciting and intriguing to plunge into the affairs of the town, with strange events happening virtually everywhere, from the Aurora goldmine to hidden corners of the town’s Chinatown. In that way, the story is atmospheric, because who can really resist the novel setting which is a port/gold-mining town where fortunes can be gained and lost in the blink of an eye? Catton also employs the language of that time to a charming effect, and her descriptions sometimes give the story an evanescent and dreamy quality. For example, when Moody enters the Crown Hotel for the first time, the line is as follows: “He surveyed the room with an air of polite detachment and respect. It had the appearance of a place rebuilt from memory after a great passage of time, when much has been forgotten…” [Catton, 2013: 5]. In this review, I will next concentrate on (i) the “celestial” design of the novel, (ii) its usage of symbolism; and on its (iii) major themes and the characters’ philosophical observations.

I. “Celestial” design

One of the most innovative and fascinating aspects of this book is that the author takes constellations and planets to map out her extraordinary plot lines. The astrological framework shapes her novel and hints at the otherworld. The detailed descriptions of the twelve leading male characters correspond to the general characteristics of the zodiac signs they represent. In his look, temperament, behaviour and occupation, each of twelve men can be linked to his respective sign:

  • Charlie Frost (a banker) – Taurus (Tauras, traditionally being associated with monetary affairs)
  • Benjamin Lowenthal (a newspaperman) – Gemini (a house that is traditionally linked to communication)
  • Thomas Balfour (a shipping agent) – Sagittarius
  • Dick Mannering (a goldfields magnate) – Leo
  • Joseph Pritchard (a chemist) – Scorpio (a sign linked to transformation, including chemical)
  • Edgar Clinch (an hotelier) – Cancer
  • Cowell Devlin (a chaplain) – Pisces
  • Quee Long (a goldsmith) – Virgo
  • Harald Nilssen (a commission merchant) – Libra
  • Sook Yongsheng (a hatter) – Aquarius
  • Aubert Gascoigne (a justice’s clerk) – Capricorn; and
  • Te Rau Tauwhare (a greenstone hunter) – Aries

For example, if Scorpio is a zodiac sign connected to taboos, transformation, mystery, intensity, depth, silence, introversion and hidden power, Pritchard, a chemist, is portrayed as a dark-haired man, whose “stifled intensity of silence was matched…by the stifled intensity of his unhurried speech” [2013:117] and women “believed him enigmatic and profound” [2013:149]. Pritchard’s connection to the world of dark forces and taboos is his opium trade, and he is also portrayed as an introvert “who sought the hidden motive, the underlying truth; conspiracy enthralled him” [2013:120]. Equally, Benjamin Lowenthal, corresponding to Gemini, is said to be “fated to see the inherit duality of all things”, while being “relaxed in his daily schedule, humorous in his religion and flexible in his business” [2013:198], because Gemini is a sign of easygoingness, sociability, flexibility, restlessness and duality.

Other characters correspond to planets:

  • Anna Wetherell – Moon (also Sun)
  • Emery Staines – Sun (also Moon) (Sun, being associated with hope, Staines is optimistic and earnest)
  • Walter Moody – Mercury
  • Lydia (Wells) Carver – Venus, thus she is described as a woman of great beauty [2013: 286]
  • Francis Carver – Mars (The man is described as possessing great strength, but also dubious reputation [2013: 34])
  • Alistair Lauderback – Jupiter
  • George Shepard – Saturn
  • Crosbie Wells – Earth (probably)

Given above, the chapters titled Mercury in Sagittarius or Mars in Capricorn simply mean that Balfour (Sagittarius) interacts with Moody (Mercury) there, or Gascoigne (Capricorn) interacts with Carver (Mars) in that chapter. Equally, as the Moon enters each of the constellations in turn in some way, Anna comes in contact with each of the twelve men in the novel. When there is a prediction that the Moon will never completely wax in February 1866, Anna (Moon) is being hidden from view by Lydia.  

II. Symbolism

Hints on alchemical symbolism are another intriguing element of the story. In some medieval alchemical writings, it says that the metaphorical fusion of the Sun and the Moon can produce the philosopher’s stone, which, in turn, is capable of producing gold. In the novel, after Anna (Moon) and Emery (Sun) spend the night together, Anna discovers gold coming from her garments, and its origin is unclear. It is also no coincidence that Anna and Emery first meet at dawn and then part at dusk since it is the time when their respective time conditions give way to one another. In some way, the novel can be read as the Sun or clarity and optimism being trapped and rescue efforts to demystify the situation are undergoing. Emery is the Sun, and he is being hoodwinked and imprisoned against his will,  meaning that all other characters begin not to see the situation clearly because of the lack of light = clarity and understanding. Finally, comparisons can be made with the novel by Victor Hugo – The Hunchback of Notre Dame [1831]. In that novel, Esmeralda, who, arguably, has mystical Moon-like qualities, is infatuated with Phoebus, whose name means “bright and pure” or the Sun, and she also becomes the object of affection for other men around whom they congregate. Something similar happens in The Luminaries, when Anna (Moon) gains affection from a number of men, but it is to a hopeless result, because she falls in love with Emery (Sun).

III. Themes and Philosophical Observations

Multiple themes run through The Luminaries, such as destiny/free will and supernatural belief, while different concepts clash – desire and reason, greed and duty, and revenge and forgiveness. The novel emphasises the relationship of a father to his son, such as Moody and his father (attempts at forgiveness), and of a brother to his brother (confusion whether Carver and Crosbie are brothers).

However, the most prominent theme is probably different perceptions of events and how one cannot see the whole truth because of one’s own inner judgement/belief and maybe mistaken conception. When Moody walked into the smoking room of the Crown Hotel for the first time, he saw twelve completely different men, different in age, race, social position and wealth, calling the inhabitants of the room “an inverted pantheon” [2013:7]. The task for the reader is to analyse and solve the plot’s mystery, but it is not an easy task because what we read is often hearsay, accounts of the story and characters which are emotive and which are influenced by the story-teller’s own perceptions, misconceptions, experience, character – zodiac personality. Each of the twelve men presents his own point of view to us on the characters involved and events as they happened (trying to persuade us), but we find out later that their accounts were influenced by many factors and cannot be taken as truth. At one point, Moody says “one should never take another man’s truth for one’s own”, and also, upon hearing the account of Balfour, exclaims, “what a convoluted picture it was, and how difficult to see in its entirety!”[Catton, 2013: 343]. Devlin, representing the “oldest soul” of the Zodiac (Pisces), hence, being the wisest, probably puts it best in the story: “If I have learned one thing from experience, it is this: never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view” [Catton, 2013: 620-621]. Most men in the story are fond of Anna; envious of Emery and hostile to Carver, but their opinions on people and events are sometimes far from being accurate. For example, Nilssen forms wrong impression of Pritchard and his relation to Anna, and Shepard’s assessment of Anna is also wrong.

The novel’s acute and insightful philosophical observations stand out. “We spend out entire lives thinking about death. Without that project to divert us, I expect we would all be dreadfully bored. We would have nothing to evade, and nothing to forestall, and nothing to wonder about. Time would have no consequence” [Catton, 2013: 390], proclaims Moody grimly, and Devlin also says “weeping may endure for the night, but joy cometh in the morning” [Catton, 2013: 311]. Other characters are as observant. In the context of Gascoigne’s infatuation with Lydia, the novel goes: “Reason is no match for desire: when desire is purely and powerfully felt, it becomes a kind of reason of its own” [Catton, 2013: 296], and Te Rau Tauwhare also thinks “Gold was not a treasure. Gold was like all capital in that it had no memory: its drift was always onward; away from the past” [Catton, 2013: 104]. 

It is, of course, wrong to call this book an instant page-turner or a book which is, initially, a pleasure to read. As the writing is dense (beautiful, nevertheless) and the plot complicated, since we see the same events from the twelve, and sometimes more, points of view, it does take quite a bit of time, meaning patience, to get to the heart of the matter. It does not help that the story jumps back and forth in time, and there are also a complicated movement of valuable property, such as gold, between the characters, on top of their already complex interlinks. Red herrings are everywhere in the novel; and much changes in one single day. Besides, it is hard to understand who knows what and blackmailed whom, because, apart from a multitude of main characters, there are also stories within stories within stories. However, any extra effort made to get into this book will be worth it, because reading The Luminaries is a fulfilling experience. A whole new, vividly-striking world of Hokitika opens up, peopled with eccentric personalities and mysterious events. In some way, this is a morbid, but exciting adventure tale of unexpected deaths, attempted murders, opium and gold smuggling, mistaken and borrowed identities, and unlawful appropriation of property. After 200 pages, it does become an easier read, and, as the book nears the end the chapters become shorter and we uncover the very beginnings, with surprises along the way.

The major and only fault of The Luminaries is that Catton did not finish her novel satisfactorily, with many questions still remaining. This is not a good thing because the reader put so much time and effort in trying to understand the sequence of events and they deserve the ending which feels “complete” and, for the first time, finally – clear. The novel is still rewarding, but not as satisfying (in terms of clarity) as probably desired. For example, Moody’s family’s relationship to Carver is never elaborated upon, and some characters’ actions do not make much sense without further explanations. Other minor things are that the language used does sometimes get in the way of the narrative, and, definitely, the complexity of the book’s structural design gets in the way of understanding the story.

The Luminaries is a highly challenging novel with complex plot lines, requiring a bit of extra concentration. However, nearly all connections in the novel come inexplicably together by the end, and things do start to make sense like an almost solved jigsaw puzzle. It is a gripping and atmospheric story, which is open sometimes to different interpretations. Besides, Catton’s masterful use of language and the delightful insight into each character are some other reasons to pick up and read this novel of great skill and sophistication.


6 thoughts on “Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

  1. This book sounds absolutely amazing – I love the way astrology or celestial elements are involved, how intriguing, I’ve never seen that before! It sounds like a quite challenging and complex read to take on so I’d have to read this in the right mind frame haha. Thanks for sharing! x

    Liked by 1 person

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