The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton


Underneath, is there a golden soul?

In which Aaron learns to never judge a book by its cover, not to be swayed by first impressions, and marvels over the wonder of self-imposed story-telling structures.

Set in 1860’s, at the height of the New Zealand gold rush, Eleanor Catton’s impressive sophomore effort is so much more than the sum of its visual parts.  Weighing in at a massive 848 pages and featuring an absolutely horrendous dust jacket that screams “Need more Jane Austin-esque Victorian romance in your life?” far more than it does “Here’s an intricately layered, complex murder mystery for your brain to devour!,” the way in which The Luminaries is packaged and presented by both its UK and US publishers doesn’t beg one to instantly read it so much as it dares them to even bother with opening its cover in the first place.


What’s waiting inside is a wonderfully vivid piece of historical fiction that features 20 major characters and centers on death of drunkard, the disappearance of wealthy young man, the addictions of a prostitute, and a fortune in stolen gold that may or may not bind them all together.  As impressive as this story is, as rich in detail, setting, and characterization, as wonderful a job as Catton does bringing to life the time period, and as admirable a job she does with making each of subjects wholly unique, what makes The Luminaries truly shine is the self-imposed storytelling structure that it adheres to.

What Catton does in her novel is reminiscent of the Oulipo.  This French group of mathematicians and writers are constantly creating new pieces of fiction using constrained writing techniques.  Sometimes they reveal the technique that was imposed, other times they leave it up to the reader to puzzle over.  In the case of Catton’s novel, there’s a little of both aspects at play.

The Luminaries certainly makes no attempt to disguise the fact that its contents are heavily influenced by astrology.  In the opening “Character Chart” section of the tome, the aforementioned dead man, Crosbie Wells, is classified under the heading Terra Firma (Earth.)  Orbiting around him are seven characters labeled as Planetary and still further out are another 12 that are grouped together as Stellar.  From here Catton leaves it up to the reader to connect the dots further.

What the incisive will discover is that each of the 12 Stellar characters represents a different astrological star sign and that each of the 7 Planetary ones represent a different planet that was visible to naked eye of the astrologers of the time period.  Furthermore, they’ll take note of the fact that each section of the book begins with a drawing of an astrological chart and many of the chapters are titled by whatever combination of characters happens to be interacting with one another at that exact moment in time.  For example, the chapter titled “Sun in Pisces” refers to a meeting between Anna Wetherell, prostitute (Sun) and Cowell Devlin, chaplain (Pisces).  For the most part, it’s left up to the reader to discern which planet and which star signs correlate to which characters and how. Also, and quite amazingly, the story is told in 12 distinct parts, with each part having exactly half the word count of the one that came before it.

All this may sound a bit complex and off-putting, but the extraordinary thing is that it can all be cast aside, and the novel can be thoroughly enjoyed without ever taking any of these details into consideration.  They certainly serve to enhance the beauty of the story being told, but not knowing these details won’t diminish the experience of reading the novel in any discernible way.

And what an experience it is.  Like the best of mind-bending literary puzzles, The Luminaries immediately engrosses the reader as it transports them to the center of gold-mining town that’s neither short on the precious nuggets nor the tantalizing intrigue.  What at first seems like an unimportant detail could be come the most crucial piece of information ever received.  What looks like an open and shut case may in fact be far more convoluted then could ever be imagined.

Oh yes, there’s literary gold to be found in these here pages.  Try as it might, don’t let that ridiculously hideous cover convince you otherwise.

The_Luminaries_US ★★★★★
The Luminaries
By Eleanor Catton
Little, Brown and Company
848 Pages
ISBN 9780316074315

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.

  • flouisify

    This review is very helpful as am now just into the second quarter of this novel and am enjoying it as I would a Maigret. How did you ever figure out this “self-imposed” structure? Did you have any clues or prior knowledge? Brilliant.

    • Typographical Era

      Thanks for reading the review and taking the time to comment!

      I wrote a piece that takes a closer look at each of the planets and matches them up to the proper characters if you’re interested in such things:

      I can’t take credit for figuring out the word count piece of the puzzle on my own, though at the moment I’m drawing a blank as to who or what clued me in. Do let me know what you think when you finish!