switterbug (Betsey)'s Reviews > The Luminaries

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
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's review
Sep 27, 2013

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites

Twelve men meet at the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, New Zealand, in January, 1866. A thirteenth, Walter Moody, an educated man from Edinburgh who has come here to find his fortune in gold, walks in. As it unfolds, the interlocking stories and shifting narrative perspectives of the twelve--now thirteen--men bring forth a mystery that all are trying to solve, including Walter Moody, who has just gotten off the Godspeed ship with secrets of his own that intertwine with the other men's concerns.

This is not an important book. There is no magnificent theme, no moral thicket, no people to emancipate, no countries to defend, no subtext to unravel, and no sizable payoff. Its weightiness is physical, coming in at 832 pages. And yet, it is one of the most marvelous and poised books that I have read. Although I didn't care for the meandering rambling books of Wilkie Collins, I am reminded here of his style, but Catton is so much more controlled, and possesses the modern day perspective in which to peer back.

I felt a warmth and a shiver at each passing chapter, set during the last days of the New Zealand gold rush. Catton hooked me in in this Victorian tale of a piratical captain; a Maori gemstone hunter; Chinese diggers (or "hatters"); the search for "colour" (gold); a cache of hidden gold; séances; opium; fraud; ruthless betrayal; infidelity; a politician; a prostitute; a Jewish newspaperman; a gaoler; shipping news; shady finance; a ghostly presence; a missing man; a dead man; and a spirited romance. And there's more between Dunedin and Hokitika to titillate the adventurous reader.

Primarily, THE LUMINARIES is an action-adventure, sprawling detective story, superbly plotted, where the Crown Hotel men try to solve it, while sharing secrets and shame of their own. There's even a keen courtroom segment later in the story. And, there are crucial characters that are not gathered in the Crown that night who link everyone together. The prostitute and opium addict, Anna Wetherell, is nigh the center of this story, as she is coveted or loved or desired by all the townspeople.

The layout of the book is stellar: the spheres of the skies and its astrological charts. You don't need to understand the principles and mathematics of astrology (I don't), but it is evident that knowledge of this pseudoscience would add texture to the reading experience, as it provides the structure and frame of the book. The characters' traits can be found in their individual sun signs (such as the duality of a Germini). The drawings of charts add to the mood, and the chapters get successively shorter after the long Crown chapter. The cover of the book illustrates the phases of the moon, from full moon to sliver, alluding to the waning narrative lengths as the story progresses.

"But onward also rolls the outer sphere--the boundless present, which contains the bounded past."

Take note of the cast list at the beginning, which is quite helpful for the initial 200 or 300 pages. With so many vivid characters coming at you at once, it is difficult at first to absorb. However, as the pages sail (and they will, if this appeals to you), you won't even need the names and professions. The story and its striking, almost theatrical players become gradually and permanently installed, thoroughly and unforgettably. From the scar on Captain Francis Carver's cheek, to the widow's garment on Anna Wetherell's gaunt frame, the lively images and descriptions animate this boisterous, vibrant story.

Catton is a master storyteller; she combines this exacting 19th century style and narrator--and the "we" that embraces the reader inside the tale--with the faintest sly wink of contemporary perspective. Instead of the authorial voice sounding campy, stilted, and antiquated, there is a fresh whiff of nuanced canniness, a knowing Catton who uncorks the delectable Victorian past by looking at it from the postmodern future.

You will either be intoxicated by this big brawl of a book, or weighed down in its heft. If you are looking for something more than it is, then look no further than the art of reading. There's no mystery to the men; Catton lays out their morals, scruples, weaknesses, and strengths at the outset. The women had a little poetic mystery to them, but in all, these were familiar players--she drew up stock 19th century characters, but livened them up, so that they leaped madly from the pages. There isn't much to interrogate except your own anticipation. If you've read COLOUR, by Rose Tremain, don't expect any similarities except the time, place, setting, and the sweat and grime of the diggers. Otherwise, the two books are alike as fish and feathers.

The stars shine bright as torches, or are veiled behind a mist, like the townspeople and story that behave under the various constellations. Catton's impeccably plotted yarn invites us to dwell in this time and place. At times, I felt I mined the grand nuggets of the story, and at other times, it blew away like dust.

"But there is no truth except truth in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating never still...We now look outward...we see the world as we wish to perfect it, and we imagine dwelling there."
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Reading Progress

September 27, 2013 – Shelved
September 29, 2013 –
page 106
12.5% "Oh yum. This is why I read. Yes. To discover peerless literature like this. This could climb to my # 1 book of the year. Exactly what I look for-- sophisticated, rich, original, and with a nuanced compass. None of this earnest, conspicuous moralizing and manipulative consciousness- raising. Catton is ingenious-- she doesn't. lead us on a mission. She's invisible!"
October 2, 2013 –
page 250
29.48% "can I PLEASE have Eleanor Catton's IQ and talent? Please? I'll give away my youth and beauty (oh...yeah. I did that already). I'll do anything. I'll be her bitch for life."
October 5, 2013 – Started Reading
October 5, 2013 –
page 370
43.63% "Almost at the halfway point. Finished the first and longest section (the following 11 sections are progressively shorter in length). All I can say is: it ain't for everyone, but it is surely for me. She wrote this for me!"
Finished Reading
October 12, 2013 – Shelved as: favorites

Comments (showing 1-47 of 47) (47 new)

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message 1: by Carol (new)

Carol This review is extraordinary! It was a pleasure to read your critique of this novel.

Bill fabulous review, betsey. i have this in transit from the library...really can't wait to read it now!

message 3: by Christina (new) - added it

Christina This is such an encouraging and well-written review! I cannot wait to read this one..

message 4: by Lynda (new) - added it

Lynda Really enjoyed your review. Must get a hold of this one. Did u read The Rehearsal?

switterbug (Betsey) Thank you, everyone! This is not a book for everyone, but it was definitely for me. Am hoping she wins the Booker, but I am not holding my breath (it will probably be Jim Crace).

message 6: by Melanie (new) - added it

Melanie switterbug (Betsey) wrote: "Thank you, everyone! This is not a book for everyone, but it was definitely for me. Am hoping she wins the Booker, but I am not holding my breath (it will probably be Jim Crace)."

I'm hoping she wins too. :) I haven't read it yet but my husband just brought it back for me from London and if she wins, it'll be that more special. I'm really, really looking forward to reading it.

switterbug (Betsey) I look forward to your feedback from the book, Melanie!

switterbug (Betsey) And thank you to a close reader who noted my typo of 1966! Yes, it is 1866!

message 9: by Teresa (new)

Teresa Melanie wrote: "I'm hoping she wins too. :) I haven't read it yet but my husband just brought it back for me from London and if she wins, it'll be that more special."

She did win! http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013...

message 10: by Melanie (new) - added it

Melanie SHE WON! She just won the Booker! :))

message 11: by Teresa (new)

Teresa And we were posting it at the same time, Melanie! ;)

message 12: by Melanie (new) - added it

Melanie Teresa wrote: "And we were posting it at the same time, Melanie! ;)"

Haha yes! That makes my husband's epic journey carrying these 800 pages back with him from the UK worth while! So exciting!! :)

message 13: by Stacia (new)

Stacia Wow. How perfect that you were posting your review at around the same time she was being announced as the Booker winner! This is going into my 'must-read' list!

message 14: by Kyle (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kyle yeah, I got this book this morning (partially due to your prompting) and then looked online in the evening to discover "oh that book got the Booker right after I bought it"

i guess what I'm saying is, you're welcome Eleanor Catton

message 15: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill that's a canadian winning the nobel prize for literature and a sort of canadian winning the booker. yay canada!

switterbug (Betsey) And yay to 28 year-old Catton. And I do hope I didn't mislead readers. This is not a book for everyone. And now that Catton's won the Booker, a lot of readers who didn't like LUMINARIES are being quite vocal about it.

message 17: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill yeah, she's the youngest winner ever. and i'm going to start luminaries this week, and hopefully i'll be one of those who do like it!

switterbug (Betsey) I hope you like it as much as I did, Bill.

message 19: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie Wow, no wonder you were hoping she won the Booker,

message 20: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill i'm on page 600 and it's a fabulous book!

switterbug (Betsey) Stephanie wrote: "Wow, no wonder you were hoping she won the Booker,"


switterbug (Betsey) Bill wrote: "i'm on page 600 and it's a fabulous book!"

Glad you like it, Bill!

Martin Zook Bug - Correct me if I'm wrong, but no book is for everyone. What is it about The Luminaries that prompted your cautionary note? I have finally gotten around to starting it and am finding it steeped in thought, my kinda book.

switterbug (Betsey) Well, this is a book that is going to be a love it or hate it kind of book. When You finish, I will say more. Don't want to give spoilers.

switterbug (Betsey) I looked back at my review and didn't see my cautionary note. At least, I didn't specifically say that this book wasn't for everyone. Only that "You will either be intoxicated by this big brawl of a book, or weighed down in its heft. If you are looking for something more than it is, then look no further than the art of reading."

Well, again, I don't want to say any more. Except that some people aren't satisfied when they get to the end.

message 26: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill you did say "this is not a book for everyone" in message 5. but then, every book is not a book for everyone, wouldn't you say? and this one was definitely a book for me!

switterbug (Betsey) Oh, I thought you meant I said it was in my review. have you finished it yet? because some people, who thought it was a book for them, wanted to throw it against the wall when they finished. :)

message 28: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill yes, i did finish it, and the ending was...different. but i still loved the book.

switterbug (Betsey) I was so glad it won the Booker. But, there are some readers who complain about the non-ending ending...

Martin Zook I read beginning, end, and flip through a book reading passages before settling down into the more traditional page-by-page methodology, Bug. (Umberto Eco argues reading a book starts with the second reading, not unlike writing begins with the editing process.)

Being a slow, slow reader, it turns out the approach I take (learned in an Evlyn Wood speed reading course) serves the purpose. Sorry to be so long winded, love to hear why you think it isn't for everyone.

Martin Zook "some readers who complain about the non-ending ending... "

I reserve the right to change my assessment when I finish, but the opening of the book is, ah, awash in allusions to circular space, including the obvious astrological allusions, but also reference to yin and yang, where the little circle is in the big and the big is in the little.

There's a koan that goes something along the lines of:
Before the mind awakens, the mountain is a mountain.
After the mind awakens, the mountain is a mountain.

A pedestrian understanding of that is: upon the mind awakening, nothing is changed, everything is changed.

It's thinking goes beyond the dual philosophy underlying our western, or relative if you're from the East, thinking and arrives at a nondual experience.

The beginning, middle, end is linear, and while more familiar to many, lacks the completeness of the circle.

But, yeah, I can see how someone who likes their linear resolution might feel uncomfortable. But let me get back to The Luminaries before I make an utter fool out of myself (first time for everything).

Martin Zook Just came across this from Catton on the effect of winning the Booker:

"It's still early days, of course, but my feeling at the moment is that everything has changed and nothing has changed," she said from Vancouver, where she was beginning a Canadian tour of literary festivals that will take her to Toronto and beyond into November.

message 33: by Jeannette (new) - added it

Jeannette Cooke This book may not appeal to everyone, but the further I got into it, the more involved I became - getting to know the characters while keeping my mind alert to who was doing what to whom!

switterbug (Betsey) I so agree, Jeanette! In this book, patience pays off with big rewards. There's a touch of the mystical, which I think buttresses the progression and, ultimately, the ending.

message 35: by Jeannette (new) - added it

Jeannette Cooke But who killed Francis Carver?!

Beverly Battle I am struggling to like this book, but not really a reviewer. I keep wondering if this is one of those books I might like better if I weren't using a kindle. Because I don't really find the cast of male characters compelling. I keep leaving Luminaries to read other books and that is not helping. I am still waiting for it to grab me.

message 37: by mark (new) - rated it 4 stars

mark monday superb review! I'm amazed at the lack of positive reviews here on goodreads for this excellent novel. very happy that I came across yours.

message 38: by Jeannette (new) - added it

Jeannette Cooke I'm waiting for the movie to come out. Peter Jackson must be wanting another project soon! It certainly is a book I've spent almost as much time thinking about than reading. Now I forget who killed Francis Carver!!

message 39: by mark (new) - rated it 4 stars

mark monday the stars did him in!

message 40: by mark (new) - rated it 4 stars

mark monday (view spoiler)

switterbug (Betsey) mark wrote: "superb review! I'm amazed at the lack of positive reviews here on goodreads for this excellent novel. very happy that I came across yours."

Thank you, Mark! I do think that some people don't like unconventional narratives.

message 42: by Jeannette (new) - added it

Jeannette Cooke It's good to read a novel that has lots of twists and turns, and encourages and promotes lots of discussion.

switterbug (Betsey) I so agree, Jeannette!

message 44: by J (new) - rated it 5 stars

J Anderson Are you a writer yourself? Your review is excellently worded, well balanced and expressive of my own feelings. I could read your style of prose easily for the length of a novel

Thesaura Loved this book and your review was excellent. a perfect 'western' story set in New Zealand.

Bettie☯ yessss!

message 47: by Gilma (new)

Gilma Chute Disappointed. I like a lot of Betsy books, but this one really was not my cup of tee. Now I am not sure I will follow you reviews to buy books. Sometimes I wonder.

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