“Never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view.”
A review by Miriam Huxley
I want to start out by saying that I really wanted to love this book. But…I’ll preface that set of ellipses by saying that Catton’s novel is an achievement regardless of my overall conclusions. Her dedication to her content and the quality of her research is immediately apparent. There wasn’t a single moment when I felt anything was anachronistic to the time period or setting. The integration of historical details was spot-on: never did it feel like information was being given simply for the sake of reminding the reader that this was a historical piece.
That being said, the novel was a tough read. Granted, an 832-page novel is going to fluctuate in pace, but like the book itself, the prose started to feel both heavy and cumbersome. By about page 700, the main mysteries had been solved and yet 132 pages remained. I remember getting to that point and thinking “What next?” Unfortunately, those 132 pages did a disservice to the (sometimes brilliant) prose in the first 700 pages. I found myself reading right to the end simply because I wanted to say that I’d finished the book. Within these pages, Catton goes into greater detail about the past experiences of the central characters, and though the content is interesting, it just didn’t contribute to the plot. It was as if Catton felt the need to over-explain to a reader who couldn’t quite figure things out. I’m not sure if the inclusion of these “summaries” was a decision made in an effort to follow the style Catton was attempting to replicate, or if Catton lacked confidence in her reader. Either way, the over-explaining didn’t add anything critical. The novel could have ended 700 pages in and I would have been satisfied.
Another major issue with The Luminaries is something I’d also like to briefly applaud. Catton creates an absolutely massive cast of characters. She includes a “Character Chart” at the very beginning of the novel which was helpful because it was often difficult to keep track of each character and what role they played. Similarly, some of the male characters were indistinguishable in passages of dialogue. That being said, Anna Wetherall, Emery Staines, Lydia Wells, Francis Carver, and Crosbie Wells were compelling characters. Their stories formed the crux of the plot. However, much of the novel was told from perspectives other than these aforementioned characters. The novel begins with a long-winded section from Walter Moody—a compelling character himself who unfortunately doesn’t play much of a role later on in the book. Other characters including Te Rau Tauwhare, Alistair Lauderback, Quee Long, and George Shephard have plotlines intertwined with the central characters, but their purpose gets slightly muddled as the novel progresses. I think this novel would have been successful with a cast of characters half as long.
Other elements at work in The Luminaries are the zodiac signs and star charts throughout the novel. Each character is assigned a sign and that sign is used to ascribe character traits. The zodiac signs are also used to link characters and their plot lines. But…it didn’t work for me. I don’t have any particular knowledge of how zodiac signs or star charts work (and I don’t know that the average reader does either), but it didn’t add to the plot. The star charts themselves were visually appealing, but I began to skip them as I progressed through the novel.
While The Luminaries begins as a murder mystery, it ultimately becomes a love story. The last portion of the novel explains the love between Anna Wetherall and Emery Staines, both of whom are new in Hokitika and new to their respective trades (whoring and mining). But I didn’t find their love story particularly compelling. As the story unfolds, we learn that Anna has some kind of psychic connection to Staines (Lydia Wells says, “You may have an astral soul-mate, whose path through life perfectly mirrors your own” (716)), and is able to convincingly forge his signature despite the fact that she doesn’t know how to read or write. I remain unconvinced. The love story almost felt like an after thought, and, more importantly, it downplayed the importance of the murder mystery element (which was much more interesting).
Overall, I thought The Luminaries was commendable merely due to the amount of research that went into the development of the characters, the plot, and the setting. I was completely immersed in 1865-6 New Zealand, fascinated as the frontier town grew throughout the course of the novel. That being said, the prose became difficult to read, too much time was spent explaining things that didn’t need to be explained, and characters I connected to vanished before the conclusion of the novel.
Miriam Huxley was born and raised in the wilds of British Columbia, but currently resides in Edinburgh, where she is completing a Master’s in Creative Writing. She also has an expensive piece of paper that says she has a BA in English, History, and Honours in Creative Writing. When she’s not writing witty prose, Miriam enjoys reading and critiquing books, experimental cooking, walking and running slowly, yoga, talking through movies, and listening to music of most genres (the good ones).