It was as if the ancient patterns had no meaning here

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

When I first started skiing it was in a resort called Livigno. I did ski school there each year, and to assess your level they had everyone participating in ski school walk half way up a hill lugging their kit, then ski down so they could watch and assess our descents.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is divided into 12 parts, one for each sign of the zodiac, and each part is roughly half the length of the previous making the whole book a kind of prose-spiral. What this means is that the first part of the novel is nearly 400 pages long and by the time you’ve finished it you’ve trudged right the way up that hill and are probably hoping that what follows will be worth the effort. Here’s how it opens:


In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika; a secret council is disturbed; Walter Moody conceals his most recent memory; and Thomas Balfour begins to tell a story.

The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportment and dress – frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill – they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of the city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway – deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the flat clatter of the rain.

In a rather good review in The Guardian novelist Kirsty Gunn compared that opening to a play, and she’s right because it’s very easy to imagine the curtain coming up on that scene. Of course the reader has read the italicised introduction to the chapter, which tells us not only that a stranger arrives but that a secret council is disturbed. It’s giving away nothing then to reveal that the room looks so staged because that’s exactly what it is, the twelve men were’t expecting company and were gathered there because nobody ever goes to the smoking room of the Crown Hotel and they have important business to discuss.

Catton is operating at two levels here. Within the fiction the stranger is Walter Moody, a young lawyer come to Hokitika New Zealand in 1866 to make his fortune in the local gold fields. As the weather was filthy he decided he wanted a drink, and as he’s new to the area he didn’t know that nobody goes to The Crown. It’s a coincidence that sets the whole story in motion, and settle in because it won’t be the last coincidence. Soon the twelve men are telling Moody what brought them there that night, each adding his own account of a series of strange events which together they hope to form into some kind of coherent whole.

Above the fiction there’s another level at which Catton is effectively saying to the reader that they’re about to hear a story. That theatrical opening underlines the artificiality of the whole exercise, this isn’t real, it’s entertainment. The italicised chapter intro, the description-rich opening paragraph, the immediate use of coincidence all signals that we’re in the territory of the Victorian novel. Moody is us, arrived part way through and hoping to make sense of the narrative. As with Catton’s marvellous The Rehearsal, this is a book whose subject can’t be separated from its structure and style.

As with any great Victorian novel by the way, Catton is marvellous at description. Here’s a little more on The Crown hotel:

The Crown was an establishment of the serviceable, unadorned sort, recommended only by its proximity to the quay. If this feature was an expedience, however, it could hardly be called a virtue: here, so close to the stockyards, the bloody smell of slaughter intermingled with the sour, briny smell of the sea, putting one in mind, perpetually, of an untended icebox in which an uncured joint has spoiled.


What follows over the next 400 pages (which remember is just the first part) is a dense and frequently confusing tale of a possibly-murdered recluse, a rich young prospector named Emery Staines recently gone missing, an opium-addicted prostitute named Anna Wetherell found dying in the street from what appears to be a suicide attempt, a new parliamentary candidate subject to potentially ruinous blackmail and a shipowner suspected of fraud and crimes of appalling violence. The twelve men trying to make sense of it all range from a banker to a goldfields magnate to a chemist to a shipping agent to a hatter to a chaplain and more. It’s a dizzyingly rich and diverse cast.

Well, I say diverse, but they’re almost all men. Hokitika is a goldrush town and while it has men of European, Chinese and Maori descent it has almost no women, and those it does have are mostly prostitutes. Hokitika then is a nexus of desire, greed for gold and lust (and love) for Anna Wetherell.

Within each of the twelve parts of the novel is a number of smaller chapters, each headed by reference to the movement of the planets and stars in astrology. Here’s how the second chapter opens:


In which the merits of asylum are discussed; a family name comes into question; Alistair Lauderback is discomfited; and the shipping agent tells a lie.

Balfour’s narrative, made somewhat circuitous by interruption, and generally encumbered by the lyrical style of that man’s speech, became severely muddled in the telling, and several hours passed before Moody finally understood with clarity the order of events that had precipitated the secret council in the hotel smoking room. The interruptions were too tiresome, and Balfour’s approach too digressive, to deserve a full and faithful record in the men’s own words. We shall here excise their imperfections, and impose a regimental order upon the impatient chronicle of the shipping agent’s roving mind; we shall apply our own mortar to the cracks and chinks of earthly recollection, and resurrect as new the edifice that, in solitary memory, exists only as a ruin.

Again I’m back to Catton’s mixing of story and structure. By this point in the book just 5o pages in I was already trying to keep track of a fair number of characters, though I was definitely intrigued as to where it was all going. Catton now addresses the reader directly, saying that Balfour (a shipping agent) may be muddled in his account but that she as author (or rather the author within the text, since the author’s style of address is contemporary to the characters) has imposed an order on what’s to follow. That’s reassuring when you’ve still got nearly 800 pages left, but it’s an utter lie. Before too long I was distinctly lost.

There’s a character chart at the start of the book saying who everyone is and I soon had it bookmarked on my kindle, regularly going back to it to remind myself who say Joseph Pritchard or Charlie Frost were. I’d find myself virtually leafing back through the book trying to recall how two characters first met or how one account connected to another. By the time I reached the second part of the novel, almost half way through, I was starting to get distinctly frustrated and my grasp of what was going on was limited to say the least.

That’s the climb up the hill. Once you get up there it becomes absolutely apparent that Catton knows exactly what she’s doing. I’d got as far as I had partly through the quality of the writing and partly through faith in some of the bloggers who’d said this was worth the effort, and then suddenly Catton revealed through Moody that she knew perfectly well that the plot so far was (needlessly) convoluted. To use an utter blogger cliche I actually laughed out loud when Moody complained about how difficult it all was to follow, and then promptly summarised in a handful of pages everything that had happened over the preceding 400.

A few years before I started this blog I read Nabokov’s novel Pnin, which started to frustrate me when I detected an increasing disconnect between the authorial voice and what was happening within the fiction. Just as I was getting close to abandoning it I realised (I think when Nabokov meant me to realise) that it was intentional, and that Nabokov had been playing with me, risking alienating me as a reader in return for a greater payoff later. In the end I loved Pnin.

Pnin however is 176 pages long. It takes real audacity to spend 400 pages winding your reader up and then to have one of your characters essentially point out what you’re doing. It’s not that the first 400 pages were a chore, I had a ton of passages highlighted to quote as examples of Catton’s prose and talent for description. I’ve cut most of them for reasons of space, but here’s one which I thought particularly nicely done:

Mannering, as has been already observed, was a very fat man. In his twenties he had been stout, and in his thirties, quite pot-bellied; by the time he reached his forties, his torso had acquired an almost spherical proportion, and he was obliged, to his private dismay, to request assistance in both mounting and dismounting his horse. Rather than admit that his girth had become an impediment to daily activity, Mannering blamed gout, a condition with which he had never been afflicted, but one that he felt had a soundly aristocratic ring. He very much liked to be mistaken for an aristocrat, an assumption that happened very often, for he had mutton-chop whiskers and a fair complexion, and he favoured expensive dress. That day his necktie was fastened with a gold stickpin, and his vest (the buttons of which were rather palpably strained) sported notched lapels.

There’s a lot packed in there and the whole first part is filled with great little portraits like that. Still, while I found the setting rich, the characters interesting and the structure intriguing, it was still taking me a fair bit of work to make sense of the twelve men’s different accounts. I was finding it hard therefore not to sympathise with Walter Moody when he says to them “‘your perspectives are very many, and you will forgive me if I do not take your tale for something whole.’”

After the half way point my experience of the novel changed dramatically. The device of having each part half the length of the other means that the whole novel starts to accelerate. Suddenly you know broadly what’s going on, and the question is what will happen next and what connects it all. The story straps on its skis and heads off down the hill, and without ever becoming any the less literary the book becomes a positive page-turner.

Catton’s playfulness though never goes away. There’s no author within the fiction, and yet even so the author is almost a character too. The quote above is one example, with the author criticising Balfour’s style (which they wrote of course) and promising to make things clearer but then distinctly failing to do so. It’s but one of many asides on the characters or notable incidents. There’s sometimes rather wonderfully elaborate language, such as: “Miss Wetherell lived by the will of the dragon, after all, a drug that played steward to an imbecile king, and she would guard that throne with jealous eyes forever.” At other times the author is positively prim, such as when a character threatens another with a gun ” uttering several profanities too vulgar to set down here.”

The astrological motif adds further depth, with each character representing (or governed by) a particular stellar body and their interactions following the procession of the astrological conjunctions. I know virtually nothing about astrology, but that didn’t matter because I could still see how the apparent coincidences within the narrative were in fact nothing of the kind governed on one view by astrological inevitability and the predestination of the spheres and on another by the fact that the entire novel is of course a completely artificial structure created by Catton to achieve particular effects. In a sense then it’s a clockwork novel, unfolding as the stars or Catton decree, impeccably controlled and with not a single page that doesn’t serve the wider purpose.

As the end of the novel grows closer its parts continue to grow shorter, until soon they can no longer fit in everything that needs to happen. I noticed that the italicised summaries grew longer, and started to contain material that wasn’t in the text that followed; the introductions breathlessly trying to fill in for what the chapters no longer had room for. By the end the novel had come apart like tissue paper in my hands, I was breathlessly at the bottom of the hill having made the last part of the descent so swiftly I was left trying to piece it back together in my mind.

That by the way is where that particular metaphor rather breaks down. In real life as a beginner skier I tended to panic when going too fast, braked and ended up reaching the bottom of the hill moving more slowly than I was at the midpoint of my run. Catton’s a better novelist than I was a skier, which is probably for the best.

So as not to make the whole thing sound too academic, I’m going to end on one final quote even though I haven’t touched on the nature of the luminaries themselves or their significance as the heart of the novel (but then it’s nice to discover some of that for yourself). This excerpt captures some of the wit of this marvellous seemingly-sprawling but in fact utterly controlled novel:

For Quee Long measured all his actions by a private standard of perfection, and laboured in service of this standard: as a consequence he was never really satisfied with any of his efforts, or with their results, and tended, in general, towards defeatism. These nuances of his character were lost upon the subjects of the British Crown, with whom Quee Long shared but eighty or a hundred words, but to his compatriots, he was renowned for his cynical humour, his melancholy spirit, and his dogged perseverance in the service of untouchable ideals.

There’s a school of thought which says reviews shouldn’t be about whether the reviewer liked a book or not, but should rather give enough information to let others make their own minds up. I see that as a false dichotomy, and anyway more appropriate for a newspaper than a blog. I aim to give enough information that anyone reading this can form their own view, but I think it’s relevant to share my personal reaction too. This is an extraordinary book from a major talent. I loved it, and I’ll read her next book even if it’s 1,800 pages long.

I have two bloggers to particularly thank at the end here. Kevin of kevinfromcanada whose review of The Luminaries is here and who first introduced me to Catton, and David Hebblethwaite whose excellent review convinced me not to be put off by book’s historical setting or sheer bulk.


Filed under Booker, Catton, Eleanor, New Zealand fiction

18 responses to “It was as if the ancient patterns had no meaning here

  1. Great review! I love how you describe the cast as “dizzyingly rich” – that’s exactly how I felt, especially when trying to piece together the different parts of the story. I thought Catton wrote with such assurance and control though that it was clear it would all come together in the end. A wonderful book.

  2. Tredynas Days

    Terrific review, as always, Max. Thanks. This is on my pile for next year: I look forward to it. I like your penultimate parag: I too take the view that blog ‘reviews’ aren’t really reviews – that’s what blogs are for…to give a highly personal response. Maybe, as well, to show a reader grappling with conflicting responses without necessarily resolving the matter. That’s why we read – for the challenge, to be taken to new places, removed from the complacent expectation of amusement, entertainment and diversion – though of course these are all important. But a truly great book smashes the cloudy glass wall between the individual and reality.

  3. Brilliant review, Max. This is such a challenging novel to review, but you’ve done it proud. I love your skiing analogy, the comments on the acceleration after the mid-point and the sense that it ends by crumbling like tissue paper in your hands. That’s it exactly. I loved the first half and was prepared to stick with it as I felt confident Catton knew what she was doing. I read an interview where she compared it to long-form TV, where you have to invest heavily in the early stages and keep the faith in the writers/director.

    Great quotes, too. I read the novel when it came out, and it’s all flooding back to me now. I have The Rehearsal to read and am still thinking of it as a book group choice. Looking forward to it.

  4. Allie

    This review was almost as enjoyable to read as the book itself! I read The Luminaries over a year ago and this just brought it all flooding back. I had some vague intention of re-reading it at some point, but now I want to do it RIGHT NOW.

    I still can’t believe that Catton is only 29. As if I didn’t already feel inadequate..!

  5. An author’s inclusion of astrology usually puts me off that author, but maybe I should make an exception for Eleanor Catton. I did enjoy ‘The Rehearsal’.

  6. Of course, there’s been a lot of buzz about this novel which put me off to be honest–that plus the historical aspects, but you pointed out that you had the same concerns. I might pick up a used copy if I come across one.

  7. Gemma, thanks! I see you reviewed it too. I’m off on holiday soon for a few
    days but I’ll read that as soon as I get back.

    Tredynas, definitely, I think it’s valuable to other readers to show where you’ve had to grapple with a book, where it’s presented challenges. A pure summary of your ultimate conclusion is fine, but it doesn’t prepare the reader for what the journey may be like.

    Absolutely on smashing that glass wall.

    Jacqui, did you review this one? Apologies if you did and I forgot. Long form tv makes sense. You have to trust the author/writers know where it’s going. If like Lost you lose that faith the work is probably done for.

    I think The Rehearsal would make a pretty good book group choice.

    Allie, that is kind, though I hope for Catton’s sake not actually true. She is hugely talented. She is very young, but it doesn’t show in the writing which is what’s important. I look on the bright side, we have decades of her work hopefully to look forward to.

    Anokatony, I’ve no interest at all in astrology, but it’s used well here and doesn’t require belief (though it’s not a purely naturalist story either). If you liked The Rehearsal odds are I think you’ll like this.

    Guy, where did you come out on The Rehearsal? As I said to Anokatony, that’s the litmus test for whether to launch into this or not I think.

  8. No, don’t worry, Max. I didn’t review it as I read it last year before I started blogging! I’m hoping to go with The Rehearsal for my next book choice, but it’ll be next summer/autumn before my turn comes around again. I was going to pick it this month, but it wouldn’t have suited. We needed some fun this time, a satire.

  9. leroyhunter

    Am really impressed by your praise for this Max (and likewise noted your thoughts on The Rehearsal). Am increasingly coming to the view that Catton is in fact The Real Thing. But the *size* of it! I have too many bloody doorsteps unread as it is.

  10. Superb review, Max. I’m in complete awe of what Catton has achieved in this book, not least because I feel I’ve glimpsed only a fraction of it. For example, I’ve come to realise that practically everything in The Luminaries (omniscient narrator, lengthening chapter summaries and all) has a metaphorical function as well as a narrative one. I want to re-read the novel with that in mind, to see what else I’ve missed.

  11. Leroy, definitely the real thing, but yes, the size is an issue. Give The Rehearsal a go and see how you get on with that perhaps?

    Deavid, thanks, and thanks for encouraging me with your review to read it. I think one could easily write university level papers on this one, and I wouldn’t be surprised in future if some do. Everything operates at multiple levels as you say, any reading/review can only scratch the surface.

  12. I knew I’d need brains to read a review about this and I’m happy I waited to be off work to read your review. (which is excellent, of course)

    There’s been a lot of praise and buzz around that book on the blogosphere and like Guy, I tend to be a little put off by that. It makes me want to wait a few years and see if the book lives up to its reputation. It’s irrational and a little silly, I know. Someone at work read it and really liked it but she loves HUGE books. The longest, the best.

    I really admire your stamina. 400 pages of wandering in a book with the need to go backward to remember who the characters are is too much for me. And then another 400 pages. From the quotes you picked, she writes really well and it was enough to keep you going. I understand she also staged everything and that’s well crafter and all but still. If I bought this book, it’d sit on the shelf for ages, I’d never have the courage to start it.

    PS: I didn’t know the word Luminaries so I looked for it in the dictionary. I suppose it refers to both the stars and the men?

  13. The Luminaries here refers I think to the Sun and Moon, and to Emery Staines and Anna Wetherell, the lovers at the heart of the book. I didn’t know the word before either by the way.

    I don’t think it is irrational actually to wait until the shine has had a chance to come off a book. There’s a reason I’ve not read Knausgaard for example, and wanting to let his reputation settle a little is part of it. The writing and craft carried me through this, but it is over 800 pages and that is a hell of a commitment.

    As a rule I’m not a fan of huge books. It smacks often of judging value by breadth rather than skill, but as ever there are exceptions.

  14. There are already academic papers on The Rehearsal, but The Luminaries will probably take a while longer… 🙂

    The length is an interesting question, because I don’t normally care for long books – and, indeed, the length is perhaps The Luminaries’ one main weakness, in the sense that it’s a little too long for its plot, in narrative terms. Would I have read this novel if The Rehearsal hadn’t convinced me to keep going come what may? I’m not sure.

    But what intrigued me was that The Luminaries is that long out of mathematical necessity. I like that the novel questions, and invites the reader to engage with, everything it does. The length, the style, the structure, are all choices that mean something – which for me is partly why the novel earns the right to ask for the commitment it does.

  15. Yes, they’ll have to finish it first for starters, which will take a while.

    I wouldn’t have read this but for The Rehearsal. Few books merit that kind of length. This one does, but typically one only finds that out after a significant investment of time and effort, so it helps hugely to have been persuaded by a previous work (and by reviews like yours, which was an influence on me).

    The length here as you say is a function of the structure. It’s not some bloated novel aimed at readers who judge value by the yard. It’s that long because it needs to be that long. I’ve no problem with that at all. It’s bloat that puts me off big novels more than anything else.

  16. I did get as far as the summary. I actually followed the plot until then, but it seemed to be a game. I envisaged being in a maze. Each time I figured the path to the end a new path was added. In part, this is what mysteries are about, but it can be taken to extremes. Suffice to say I thought there were a lot of great books I was missing and stopped reading. Unfortunately, the Booker Short List had many more worthy books on it than “Luminaries”. You might start with Jim Crace’s “Harvest” if you have not read it.

  17. It is a bit of a game, I think that’s right. I don’t think it is a mystery in that while the characters are trying to solve something I think the experience at reader level isn’t of a whodunnit.

    That said, I’ve abandoned many a long book on the basis that I could be reading shorter books, so if I’d had your reaction I’d have done exactly the same.

    I’ve not yet read that Crace, but I do have it and am looking forward to it. I’ve a review of his Quarantine here. For me this was a prize winning novel in quality terms (though obviously I can’t say whether it should have won, not having read the whole list). Obviously we differ on that, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover the Crace is also at an extremely high level. He’s an underappreciated author, probably as his subjects are too diverse to make him easily categorisable.

  18. Pingback: Looking back on #readwomen2014 and my favourite reads of the year | Pechorin's Journal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s