Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 21, 2014

The Luminaries (2013), by Eleanor Catton, Winner of the Booker Prize in 2013

The LuminariesI know I will need to duck for cover when I say this, but I found The Luminaries to be rather a disappointment.  I probably wouldn’t have minded so much if it hadn’t been so long, but when a book takes four solid days to read and reveals itself to be empty at the core, that’s tiresome.

At school, my students define literature as ‘books you’ll remember all your life’, and I was pleased to find a similar but more elegantly expressed argument from Bernard-Henri Lévy in Public Enemies, where he says that the test of a good book versus a bad one is that bad ones are dead.  They are ‘books without a footprint, books that leave no trace’. (p.241) Well, I’ve given myself a week to reflect on The Luminaries, to consider whether there is some theme or observation about the human condition that I might have missed, but …

There are always numerous reviews of Booker Prize winners, and The Luminaries (see below) is no exception, with fulsome praise from judges and reviewers alike – but it didn’t take long to find a few dissenting voices that veil concerns similar to mine.  Guy Somerset at the NZ Listener has similar doubts.  I think he’s right: the book is hollow.

Yes, it’s a well-written pseudo-Victorian mystery novel.  Set in the goldfields of New Zealand in the mid 19th century, it very successfully mimics the style of the great Victorians who wrote for what was then popular culture with equally baggy mysteries: think Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, for example.  The sense of the past is credibly realised, and if you are a veteran of the Victorian novel, it will seem authentic in style, as if it were written in the period it depicts.  No anachronisms that I could detect jar the reader out of the mid Victorian era.  (Some reviewers are excited about stray ‘postmodern’ comments from the narrator, but that just shows they haven’t read enough Victorian novels).  There is no post-colonial angst: the colonising Europeans behave towards the token Maori and Chinese exactly as one might sadly have come to expect.    None of the women betray any feminist discontent with their lot.

If you are an enthusiast of the mystery genre, you will enjoy the steady drip feed of clues to muddle, confuse and distract while simultaneously building up a scenario to untangle the plot.  In this novel there is no detective other than the reader, who learns the testimony of events from twelve different characters presided over by an omniscient narrator, who occasionally assists with a comment such as noting that one of the characters reacts to ‘the lie’. But it is not like the mysteries of Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope because these great writers had something to say about the human condition and the social environment in which their stories took place.  Catton’s book has nothing to say at all.

Her characters gather, discover that they all have different parts of the jigsaw puzzle, and over 800 pages the story is assembled.  The story is constructed using a network based on astrology, and from what I can tell (since I have never given astrology the time of day) the characters correspond to the nonsense that astrologers peddle about personality types, and behave in a predetermined way on the basis of their star signs.  Certainly none of these characters appear to grow or develop, which in a book of 800 pages is a grave limitation.

Over at Winston’s Dad, Stu introduced me to the term ‘oulipo’, a French literary movement which involves writing under certain constraints.  The most famous of these is a book which declines to include the letter ‘e’.  While I have not yet read any of these, they interest me because they sound witty and clever, but the wit and cleverness relies on the reader being able to appreciate the skill in constructing such a book.  (Translated into Chinese, for example, a missing ‘e’ is presumably undetectable among the pictograms.)  Likewise, a book that relies on a credulous knowledge of pseudoscience for its impact would be a risky venture if it were not for the sad fact that plenty of otherwise intelligent people actually believe in astrology, (and some even expect their belief to be treated with the same respect as religious belief, and like all pseudoscientists, they tell you that if you take the trouble (and by inference, are smart enough) to study it properly you will come round to their  point of view).

There isn’t really any way to lighten up about this.  The book imposes its structure and characterisation, and to appreciate its alleged brilliance, one needs to invest time in learning mumbo-jumbo.  Well, writers write the way they will, and the Booker is always a captive of its judges and the people who select them, but The Luminaries was 800 pages too long for me and a sorry successor to Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

Commenting in The Guardian about the way in which women authors are interviewed by comparison with men, Catton is reported as saying that

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.”

Sagely, the interviewer did not unpack the ways in which Catton thinks that The Luminaries is a work of philosophy…

If you have not already come across enough reviews of The Luminaries, here are some more from fans and detractors:

  • Lucy Daniel at The Telegraph who admired the plotting;
  • Simmy Richman at The Independent who thought that this rangy, enormous brilliant novel’s sheer rip-roaring readability might tell against it in the race for the Booker;
  • Brian Morton at The Independent who thinks the book shows mastery of fictional form;
  • David Hebblewhite at Follow the Thread who thinks that Eleanor Catton belongs in the first rank of authors writing today.
  • Noted NZ author C.K. Stead at the Financial Times UK who says that the demands made on time and attention offered insufficient human or intellectual return;
  • David Sexton at the London Evening Standard found the prose style an intolerable affectation; and
  • Kirsty Gunn at The Guardian who makes a virtue of the book’s empty core:

But it is also a massive shaggy dog story; a great empty bag; an enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat. For nothing in this enormous book, with its exotic and varied cast of characters whose lives all affect each other and whose fates are intricately entwined, amounts to anything like the moral and emotional weight one would expect of it. That’s the point, in the end, I think, of The Luminaries. It’s not about story at all. It’s about what happens to us when we read novels – what we think we want from them – and from novels of this size, in particular. Is it worthwhile to spend so much time with a story that in the end isn’t invested in its characters? Or is thinking about why we should care about them in the first place the really interesting thing? Making us consider so carefully whether we want a story with emotion and heart or an intellectual idea about the novel in the disguise of historical fiction … There lies the real triumph of Catton’s remarkable book.

Hmpf.  The Emperor has no clothes.

PS Lee Monks, commenting on the review at Kevin from Canada, describes The Luminaries as “somewhere between ‘Superior supermarket novel’ and ‘Accomplished and authentic comic drama’ ” accomplishing in eleven words what I’ve said in 1200+.

Author: Eleanor Catton
Title: The Luminaries
Publisher: Granta 2013
ISBN: 9781847088765
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore, Sandringham $32.95

Fishpond: The Luminaries


  1. Ach… And I loved the book, thought it was a jolly good romp. I didn’t think it was particularly difficult or insightful or stylish – just complex, nicely written, and yet fun and enjoyable, a good mystery set in the 19th century New Zealand gold rush. No, it’s probably not a “worthy” successor to Mantell’s triumphs, but, imo, none of the shortlisters is – none that I’ve read yet at any rate.

    Thanks for a thoughtful review though, Lisa. It did make me think.


    • Hi Becky, I do agree, it’s a good romp if you like a mystery. But LOL I tend to find the genre frustrating: oh, just get on with it, I think, when an author drags out her carefully paced snippets and red herrings, because I never really care whodunit or what they did, not unless I’m getting something else from the book as well.


  2. Oh my! I know what you mean by a hollow book. I found one in Banville’s The Sea. It had all sorts of good reviews and prizes but I found it empty and pretentious. The mouse labored and could not even bring forth a mouse.

    You can find some feminine discontent in Victorian novels, for example Jane Eyre and Little Women. Even Trollope glanced at the idea that some middle class women found their lives restricted and boring.


    • Oh, yes, true, there is plenty of discontent around, among the Victorians, for example Austen and her critique of the marriage market, and from the other side of the ditch, Zola’s Clotilde so indifferent to the vanity of clothes and itching for some way to exercise power openly as men do. I suppose what I meant is that there’s no empowering sense that the ‘natural order of things’ should be disturbed and that both men and women benefit when both genders lead full lives.


  3. Many thanks for mention I like it in parts never got to review it as was a library book and was due back before I got chance to write it I do wonder if it was written with a tv series in mind I said this at time I read it very much like deadwood goes nz in parts


    • LOL Stu, whether they admit it or not, I bet most authors hope for the money that goes with film or TV in mind!


      • I imagine they do and so many in other genres seems written with it in a vague hope


        • But to be fair to Catton, the cliff-hanger technique was part of what the Victorians did: they wrote in serial form for journals and newspapers and the cliff-hanger was designed to make sure that the reader bought the next edition, just as today’s TV serials are written to make the viewer come back next week and watch the ads that sponsor the show. Done well, it’s ok, done badly e.g. the Da Vinci Code, it is laboured and obvious and irritating.


  4. I’m actually relieved by your review, Lisa, as I had similar thoughts myself while ploughing through it. In the end I realised I just didn’t care enough about any of the characters or finding out whodunnit. I realise that it’s very cleverly constructed, I appreciated the language and detail, but ultimately it wasn’t satisfying for me. I read in a review that ‘It’s not about story at all. It’s about what happens to us when we read novels – what we think we want from them – and from novels of this size, in particular.’ So I suppose we differ in why we read and what we want from a book!


    • Hi Anna, Kevin from Canada talks about it being a masterpiece of literary engineering, and as a writing feat I guess he’s right. But I’m not surprised that New Zealand reviewers weren’t especially impressed, because from what I’ve read, there are other Kiwi authors writing books that do satisfy in the way that you mean, that do leave a footprint. One of the things that bothered me most was the Maori character, I’ve forgotten his name, but honestly, reading this book you’d have no idea that that the Maori fought ferociously against the colonisers for their land!


  5. While I appreciate literary gimmicks (and Catton employs two — both astrology and the decreasing chapter word length), in the final analysis I think readers have a right to ask “do they add to the value of the book”? In this case, I don’t think they do. Like you, I have no interest in astrology but I didn’t find my ignorance cause me to wonder what I was missing. And while the shrinking chapters left some impression, they did not make the novel any better as much as I appreciated the challenge the author had set herself.

    A good enough story, but not a particularly memorable one — and I fully agree that it did not tell me anything more about the New Zealand of the time than the very little bit I already know.


    • Thank goodness the Folio Prize is coming along, eh?


  6. Hi Lisa

    I share your opinion of the book. I really wanted to like it because I saw Catton interviewed on TV and she was so charmingly unspoiled and fresh.
    My problem was that I couldn’t care enough about any of the characters to put in the mental effort to keep them separate in my mind (Is he the banker or the pub owner?) And there were so many of them! I came to the conclusion that it was a bit like the process you go through with friends when deciding whether to make the effort to keep the friendship going.I decided it wasn’t.


    • *chuckle* I know exactly what you mean! I was predisposed to like this book … You know, fresh young author, Kiwi breaking in to the big time, and all that. I suppose I wanted to know what a young author like Catton thinks about the history of her country, and instead what I got was a period piece that told me nothing: nothing I didn’t already know from reading other novels set in that period, and nothing that revealed the author’s perspective or interpretation of events.
      Mind you, I’m still going to have a go at The Rehearsal. I’ve got it somewhere, LOL it’s got a really inane cover that’s never enticed me to actually pick it up and read it, after somebody recommended it to me, but I will make an effort now. It is. mercifully, much shorter than this one!


  7. I haven’t read this book yet and have only skimmed your review, because I don’t want to be put off too much ;-) but I was speaking to someone about this book the other night and they said they felt the problem was that it was too much head, not enough heart. I suspect maybe that’s what you mean about it being hollow?


    • Hi Kim, there’s not actually any spoilers in my review, I was careful about that, and LOL, you can’t be put off, no one can, this book has won the Booker and nobody is going to take any notice of an obscure blogger from the far antipodes, I am sure!
      I can see where your friend is coming from, and I’ve also seen some reviews at GoodReads which say that they don’t care about the characters etc., but I don’t necessarily expect that in a book. I’m looking for a big idea, I guess, not just structural gamesmanship. It’s safe to say that I will never write historical fiction set in NZ, but if I were, I would want to explore – as *literary fiction* does – big ideas about the impact on the Maori, or about the way women were used/abused in those gold rush days. (Fiona Kidman’s The Captive Wife is a brilliant example of something similar). Or maybe I would write about the longing for ‘home’ and the emigrant experience being in conflict with becoming successful in a similar vein to Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney. When I think of the Kiwi books I’ve read, they’ve all left me with a ‘footprint’ that I remember now even though I can’t remember the names of the characters or the plot detail: Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town, for example, has left me with an indelible impression of a homeless little boy caught between two cultures, all on his own and making his way in a heartless gold rush town.
      But with The Luminaries, here I am ten days after I read it and there’s just an emptiness. I might just as well never have read it.


  8. My impression is that The Luminaries is basically a mystery set in the past – historical. It’s plot-driven as almost all mysteries are, not character driven or theme/idea driven. It’s about who-done-it and how (means/method) why (motive). Language or “style” and strucure are not usually terribly important in mysteries because those kinds of elements often interfere with the pacing. But The Luminaries had lots of shady-type characters, more than a couple red herrings and several good twists to the tale. It’s a finely crafted novel of the mystery or crime genre, imo.

    That said, I did really enjoy the characters even if they weren’t always sypathetic – (as usual in crime novels). I don’t think there are any “themes” or “ideas” to take home and ponder here. For me, The Luminaries is just a rollicking good yarn well told.


    • HI Becky, Yes, I think you’re right. The thing is, I’m not interested in mystery stories of the type you describe, and because the book won a major literary prize, I thought there was more to it than that.


  9. Sorry to hear that you didn’t like this book, Lisa. I adore it, and I wish everyone liked it as much as I do; of course, that’s never going to happen with any book. But Catton has become one of my very favourite writers; maybe I can say something to explain why.

    I found (and was quite surprised to find) that the novel treats astrology with a considerable amount of scepticism; certainly, I think the astrological scaffolding is a means rather than an end. One thing I think she’s using it to explore is the idea of imposing an artificial pattern on the world, and the consequences and drawbacks of doing so. Besides the zodiac, there’s the murder mystery form itself (which is undermined in all sorts of little ways, and the gold prospectors placing an unwelcome pattern on the land itself.

    That’s just one example I could talk about (and I know there’s even more that I just glimpsed on first reading). I don’t believe that The Luminaries is hollow, and would strongly disagree that it has nothing to say. But I do think it speaks through its structure as much as its words (one thing I love about Catton’s work is that she makes the structure of a novel sing, in a way I’ve never experienced before).

    Apologies if this is coming across as too sharp; I don’t mean it to. But this is a book I will cherish for the rest of my days.


    • Hello David, and thank you for joining in the conversation:) I am only too pleased when other readers contribute alternative PoVs about a book because books offer different things to different readers, and can also ‘speak to us’ differently at different times of our loves. (I still vividly remember my disdain for Ulysses the first time I read it, now it’s my ‘desert-island book’ LOL).
      BTW I love your blog, I’m off to go exploring…


  10. […] Lisa at ANZLitLovers wasn’t enamoured. […]


  11. […] the end. In spite of some ambivalence, the depth of Catton’s characterization won her over.  Lisa at ANZLitLovers was […]


  12. The most un-rivetting book I have attempted to read. Maybe she thinks herself as a female Dickens but without the literary skill. Very pretentious- I’ve packed it in about half way through- couldn’t even use the book as a read to send me to sleep- it was too boring- had to tuck in still feeling awake.


    • Well, no argument from me about this! A real disappointment for a Booker Prize winner.


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