‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton

May 18, 2016 at 6:09 am 1 comment

This post is part of our on-going 2016 Spring Reading Spree. Kick off your own reading spree this spring by giving some love to the unread books on your shelf!


As Kate has previously noted in her post on Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, it is incredibly hard to write about big, excellent books. Where do you start when you love something so lengthy and for so many reasons? What do you do when you finish an epic book and want to talk about everything and everyone in the book?

Like The Count, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is a hefty tale, largely fueled by revenge and other sorts of nefariousness, that takes its time unraveling its plot and the relationships between its characters. Additionally, The Luminaries is akin to the Victorian mystery novel, but instead of having a Father Brown or a Sherlock Holmes or a Miss Marple to do the mystery-solving, the responsibility of figuring out what actually happened is divided amongst thirteen people. They all want to solve the mystery and they each have a specific piece of information that might do the trick, but they are often hampered by their own blind-spots and prejudices.

But more than the triple mystery at its heart, The Luminaries is an insightful exploration of character and New Zealand’s own history. It’s no wonder at all that Catton was awarded the Book Prize for this one — it’s incredibly well-written with character and place descriptions rendered perfectly in their straightforwardness. Catton is not a flowery writer, but she is a beautiful one with the gift of clarity in her view of individuals and society at large. Not one character is ever a caricature, even the most minor ones, and Catton’s omnipresent narrator, with a much clearer view of events and people than any single character ever attains, is a delight to read.

And there is even more here than the mystery and the writing! Transcending these things (which, admittedly, do most of the heavy lifting to make The Luminaries an enjoyable, engrossing book) is the very craft of it. Each character in the book is associated with a certain astrological sign or planet and the entire book itself is organized according to astrology. Catton works her characters and plot according to carefully plotted astral signs from the nineteenth century and the chapters themselves wane like a moon as you move forward through the book. It’s a beautiful touch to an already incredible book.

It took me a while to get into The Luminaries, but once you get past the first 25-30 pages, it soars along, only lagging briefly at the change-over from the masterful Part I (i.e. the first half of the book) to Part II, picking up a few weeks later. The plot is twisty, the characters are full of humanity, the location is unusual, the historical moment is fascinating, and the writing is a masterclass in prose. You certainly will not regret picking up this epic.

Next up on my spring reading spree is Just My Type: a book about fonts by Simon Garfield, which I purchased in 2012 after wanting to read it for a full year before that and didn’t read until this May. Better 4-5 years late than never!


Entry filed under: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery. Tags: , , , , , .

‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ by Mary Elizabeth Braddon ‘Just My Type’ by Simon Garfield

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