It’s difficult to pin down the exact plot of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. The story opens with Walter Moody’s arrival in New Zealand to be a part of the 1860’s gold rush. Instead, he finds himself surrounded by twelve mismatched men who impart to him the recent, eerily coincidental events that have led to a myriad of criminal activity. But The Luminaries isn’t Walter Moody’s story or even the twelve men’s stories. Instead, the book is about the attempted suicide of a young prostitute, a husband and wife con team, a hermit’s death, a politician’s arrival, and a young man’s disappearance. It seems impossible that all the people and events are connected, but each of the twelve men are able to contribute information that helps piece together the core elements of this great mystery novel.
If this sounds like a lot for one novel to tackle, there’s a good reason: Catton wanted to use The Luminaries as an intense study on the Victorian sensation novel, allowing her to play with mystery, intrigue, magic, séances, corruption, massive fortunes, and mistaken identities. While individually innocent, the twelve men all realize that they have contributed to these strange events. They are temporarily divorced from the comfort of their lives and instead worry for their careers and reputations. What is lovely about this concept is that you see a group of men, many with standing in the community, being forced to confront their actions and, for once, worry about what consequences they might have caused. While there are clear villains and victims in the novel, The Luminaries points fingers at all parties who helped push these events into motion.
What makes The Luminaries even more interesting, though, is that each of the twelve men represents one sign of the zodiac, the symbols corresponding with the men’s personalities and temperament. Their involvement with the mystery revolves around a set pattern guided by the constellations’ placements in the sky. As the star signs rotate, the characters also slip in and out of the picture, influencing the story’s outcome. Catton was curious about the idea that all paths are predetermined by forces beyond our control. This is certainly the case with The Luminaries as each of the characters cannot help but influence and react to the events as their zodiac personality would dictate. Catton made a deliberate choice to follow a particular star pattern during the late 1800’s, but she worked to make the plot and intertwining relationships feel natural.
Many critics have hailed The Luminaries as the “great New Zealand novel,” a phrase that Catton herself shies away from. In one sense, it’s not hard to understand why some might make this assumption. The novel is set during a population boom in New Zealand. It features characters from different races and backgrounds, giving each of these people a clear voice. Finally, it shows that many people in New Zealand are implants from other countries who wanted to achieve a fortune by mining gold. Yet calling The Luminaries a story that defines a nation seems over-reaching. Rather, the novel highlights the exploitation of New Zealand’s land as well as the rampant racism that many Westerners brought with them from Europe, all while set against the backdrop of a complicated murder mystery.
At nearly 900 pages, The Luminaries is not a light read. It took me about three weeks of reading and processing the story’s intricate plot lines before I finally finished the book late one night. Plotting out the instances of mistaken identities, following a missing fortune in gold nuggets, and understanding the ever-changing relationships between characters was daunting. However, I enjoyed sorting out the puzzle for myself, and I felt rewarded when I closed the book for the last time. In my opinion, The Luminaries absolutely deserves the accolades and awards it received after it first debuted in 2013.