The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton


I’ve just spent 4 working days listening to one book, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013), 832 pp or 29 hours 18 minutes in audio form. This is the 20 something New Zealander’s second novel and it won her the 2013 Man Booker.

From where I was sitting, over those 4 long days, when not out of the truck loading or unloading, or catching up on news and footy on the ABC, this was a straightforward murder mystery set in the NZ South Is. goldfields in the 1860s and written in a consistent 19th century style, the story dependent on a series of unlikely coincidences, and of course, a whore with a heart of gold.

The plot revolves around a newcomer to newly built gold rush town Hokitika, on the west coast, stumbling into a meeting of 12 men and being immediately included into their fears and concerns about missing men and missing gold. The omniscient author takes us backwards and forwards through the stories of each of these men and then gradually adds in new players.

It all seems rather derivative, especially for a Man Booker winner, rather like a painter in the style of Hans Heysen being awarded a major art prize. According to Wikipaedia what I couldn’t see as the book was being read to me was the cleverness of its underlying structure. Apparently the twelve men in the room represent the signs of the zodiac, the newcomer (Moody) and other main characters represent the sun and the moon and so on, and the chapters progressively decline in size representing the waning of the moon. I’m sure that makes sense to someone.

And then there’s that whole historical novel thing, the principal characters include a Maori and two chinese who are three of the 12 in the initial meeting. Catton can write until she’s blue in the face but 19th century goldfields did NOT have 21st century race relations.

Whispering Gums offers a much more detailed review (and links to more) here and here. I especially like her final para on 2 Feb 2014:

“All this brings us to one question. Why did Catton choose to write her novel in this style? Is it riff, pastiche, reworking, or homage? I’m not sure, but it sure seems to have got a lot of people talking. As for me … I’m still puzzling!


E. Catton, The Luminaries, on Brilliance Audio, performed by Mark Meadows

5 thoughts on “The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

  1. Thanks for the link Bill. This was such a strange book – and I still puzzle about it. The best part for me was the description of like on the goldfields. I wonder what difference listening to it would make.


  2. If you have lots of time listening is excellent. Nearly every book is acted rather than read, that is the reader makes a real effort with the voices, and that adds to the experience. As well, you get used to certain actors, especially with Australian books. Sometimes the next Peter Corris or Arthur Upfield is just like settling down to another episode of Blue Hills.


    • Yes, I can imagine with your job it was be a wonderful thing. I don’t do a lot of long distance driving – and lately on road trips I’ve been content to be quiet, sit with my thoughts, and look around me. (I don’t talk a lot to hubby as he’s better not distracted when driving!) But that’s holidaying, not driving for work! I find the acting quite irritating but boy, if I get to the stage where my eyesight is poor, I’ll be thrilled to have access to audiobooks. The last audiobook I “read” was about 5 years ago, and it was Ruth Park’s Swords and crowns and rings. Once I got used to the voice, I did enjoy it immensely.


  3. I quite often forget whether I have read or “read” a book. After a short lapse of time reading and listening seem to leave the same impression. And to hark back to an earlier post, I have That Deadman Dance on order, so I will eventually contribute a review. I’ll have to work out how to take notes on the run!


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