It’s not even a novel in the normal sense, but rather a mass confabulation that evaporates in front of us, an astrological divination waning like the moon, the first section 360 pages long (or are those degrees?), the last a mere sliver. But it’s a sliver that delivers … A score of major characters take turns as protagonist. They headline in set pieces and protracted scenes, suffer shootings and poisonings, enact strategic whoring, survive storms at sea, find treasure sewn in dresses, lose the treasure, find it again … The Luminaries is a true achievement. Catton has built a lively parody of a 19th-century novel, and in so doing created a novel for the 21st, something utterly new.
The book’s astrology-based structure does not exactly clarify anything. Its Piscean quality, she writes in an opening note, ‘affirms our faith in the vast and knowing influence of the infinite sky’ … Here on Earth, The Luminaries is more baffling. The story begins on what is apparently a dark and stormy night (find this witty if you must), that of Jan. 27, 1866. Walter Moody, one of the book’s principals, has escaped a shipwreck to arrive at the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, New Zealand … This book is well past its midpoint — that is, at about Page 500 — before it truly begins to click. Its later, increasingly breathless sections have the suspenseful option of finally, at long last, putting all these pieces together.
...astoundingly complicated and almost defies explanation … The 12 parts of the novel...wane like the moon: Each part is roughly half the length of the section that preceded it. Part 1 is 358 pages long. Part 12? Two … Throughout the novel, Catton shifts perspective among the dozen luminaries — as well as her other characters. She has created an erudite, omniscient 19th-century sort of narrator … Everyone in The Luminaries is hoping to get rich quick, and it’s a dog-eat-dog world where almost no one can be trusted and almost no one is telling the truth. At least not the whole truth. But the key to following the story is to try to follow the money. The result is a finely wrought fun house of a novel. Enjoy the ride.
Set in 19th-century New Zealand, at the height of the West Coast Gold Rush, The Luminaries recalls the literary style of the time with impressive accuracy: It’s a massive tome, weighing in at 832 pages, but contains sentence after sentence of quietly observed detail … Catton maintains multiple storylines with Dickensian dexterity—hapless protagonist Alistair Lauderback stumbles on a string of grisly murders while a cabal of local men convene in secret to discuss them. These intertwined plots unfold against the backdrop of a frontier town that runs on vice: sex, drugs, and murder.
It gradually unravels a series of overlapping mysteries to provide an epic Victorian yarn of love, murder, and greed set during the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s. Nevertheless, this is not a book to gallop through—and not merely because the unraveling proves as complicated as anything in Victorian literature itself … The most unexpected influence of all is extraterrestrial—because this is a novel structured around astrology. Offhand, it’s not easy to think of a less intellectually fashionable subject; but, as with the Victorian narration, Catton takes it on with a wholeheartedness that borders on the obsessive … Whether you ignore it or not, the astrology adds another layer of unease to the feeling that The Luminaries is more a careful simulacrum of a great novel than the real thing. There’s no mistaking the almost frightening level of Catton’s talent. Yet in the end, does the book amount to any more than a vast creative-writing exercise—albeit one that’s superbly, and at times thrillingly, carried out?
From the first five pages of The Luminaries, it’s evident that Catton’s model is the Victorian ‘sensation novel,’ in which middle-class characters were suddenly confronted with alarming, inexplicable and uncanny events whose true causes and (usually scandalous) nature are gradually revealed in the course of the story … All you need to take from Catton’s conceit is the idea that the story itself is driven not by individual characters and their wills but by the ever-changing relationships and combinations among them. You think you’ve got a handle on the nature of its mysteries, then the earth shifts on its axis, the perspective changes to reveal more hidden connections or influences, and you must think again.
Each of these characters is developed over many pages. They are ‘stock’ but it is good stock. The reader comes to know and enjoy them. The mysteries and the melodrama multiply, each story seeming to lead into another. The tone is cool, the telling clear, almost hard-headed, except in one late aspect where it slides towards sentimentality … This is costume drama. It is conventional fiction but with the attention to fact and connection that the (cross-checking and online research) facilities of the modern computer permit … Such a conventional ‘story’ requires a conventional rounding off and bowing out; but so many hares, false and real, have been set running, no tidy resolution is possible, and The Luminaries tails off in a tangle of loose ends.
It's as if a Victorian novelist—steeped in Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, with their sense of character, plot, atmosphere and texture—had the benefit of the modernist masters, where the manner of recounting the story is as important as the story itself … The Luminaries offers instances of avarice, fear and all manner of desperation. Hokitika, for American readers, may bring to mind the iconography of the Wild West—the brothel, the saloon, the general store—and the varied fortunes of the mining camp, with its wild-eyed prospectors, the lucky few who hit it rich, the unlucky many who do not, each preying on the other for advantage … Ms. Catton appears to use the star-mapped sky as an occasional, even ironical, form of commentary, as well as an ornament to her already elaborate plot and mix of characters. In this marvelously inventive novel, nothing is quite what it first appears to be, but everything is illuminated.
The Luminaries is, among other things, an experiment in predetermination. By extinguishing every coincidence, it turns literature into the same kind of problem as astrology: Do we want structural interpretation to dictate narrative, or is it best when a story’s structure, as one character puts it, ‘always changes in the telling’? … Encased in this postmodern complexity is a plot—a ‘sphere within a sphere,’ as one chapter has it—about as pre-modern as it gets … It’s possible to read the book with pleasure strictly on the level of what one might call its ‘literary merits’—or it would be, if only its author would let you. She doesn’t. Neither are we allowed to fully engage on the level of characters or plot—the astrological contrivance is too shifty for that.
The novel begins two weeks after Wells' murder. It progresses forward in time and then doubles back to reveal the events as they lead up to the crime. Ms. Catton deliberately plays with pacing and plotting. At first, the book is slow. Characters are mentioned without prior context, which causes confusion. When the narrative doubles back to their stories again, things suddenly make sense, and the pace picks up … The astrological framework allows for a nuanced study of character types … The Luminaries shows how easily we're satisfied with partial truths. In this place of new starts, truth, like men, are fabrications. Even though it's a doorstop of a book, readers are rewarded for their diligence: this is a historical mystery unlike anything else.
There's a postmodern wink in all of this: for all the language and characters in the impeccably paced and executed opening section, there's ultimately more truth to be found in the novel's moving, closing coda … By bringing these men together — and using their distinct, astrologically coded personalities to illustrate the necessary limitations to their individualized points of view — Catton underscores all that divides her characters. Race, class and gender. Family, culture and education. Addiction, passion and greed. But having posed this problem, Catton sets out to solve it. Insistently drawing characters into relation, the very existence of this novel suggests the insight we gain and how we might be changed by interacting with those around us.
Apparently a classic example of 19th-century narrative, set in the 19th century, with all the right-sounding syntax, clothing and props, the project twists into another shape altogether as we read, and continue to read … 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 is a curious act of double-writing that Catton has achieved – that she could write more and more about a thing, only to have it matter less and less. The characters don't gain depth as the story proceeds; they slip further away from us.