Monday, February 23, 2015


THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton (Victoria University Press, 2013)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm 

It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky. Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bust, The Luminaries is a brilliantly constructed, fiendishly clever ghost story and a gripping page-turner.

Obviously one of the most commented on aspects of THE LUMINARIES is the size. Clocking in at 830+ pages this is not a book for fans of thrillers, or fast reads, not just because of its sheer size, but because of the dense nature of the writing and the story. Set in 1866, this novel feels and reads exactly as if it was written in that time. Littered with so many of the elements that come into this sort of fiction: opium dens, families losing everything, illegitimate children, multiple identities, belief in the spirit worlds and illicit relationships, there's something utterly perfect about the evocation of time and place.

The other commented on element is the cleverness of the structure - with a decreasing number of pages in parts as the book proceeds. Undoubtedly quite a writing feat to pull off, and something that commentators are fascinated by.

The characters in this story are beautifully apt for their time, and their voices realistic. The sequence of events felt believable and everything about the setting works. The descriptive passages of both the people, their inner turmoil and the place in which they are located is beautifully done - in fact that's probably what this reader came away from THE LUMINARIES with. There are some absolutely beautiful words, built into some glorious sentences, that alas seem to suffer from not a lot of conviction in a large number of pages.

Perhaps it's because it is so very mannered, controlled and structured, genteel and staged that there seems to be such a lack of fire at the source. Certainly the tone struggled to hold this reader through the same sequence of events, from a number of different character perspectives, frequently hurried towards the end, but consistently passionless - rushing / or jumping to a conclusion for reasons to do with page count rather than motivation. Mind you, it's hard to put down a book which has each new chapter starting with the impact that they do. Yet so many of those chapters petered, padded or simply wandered around lost and vaguely disengaging. In the first half of the novel that journey too quickly becomes a series of long drawn out one on one discussions, explanations and explorations of the action, motivation and behaviour. It tipped too quickly into "tell, don't show" and that, for this reader, lead automatically to attention flagging, of finding excuses to put the book down, of a certain dragging feeling to say nothing of inevitability.

Add to that a tendency for some of the more curious characters to fade into the background, and the second half of the novel starts to draw out, which given the sheer size of it, becomes an increasingly daunting task. Whilst the beauty of the writing doesn't let go, the plotting and devices used bury much of that in a frantic desire for something, anything passionate, committed or unexpected to happen. Something that says that yes, these are people who believe in what they are saying / doing / commenting on.


Karen Chisholm is one of the most respected crime fiction reviewers in Australia. An absolute stalwart of antipodean crime fiction, Karen created and has been running her Aust Crime Fiction website since 2006, highlighting a plethora of authors and titles from this part of the world, to the wider world online. It is a terrific resource - please check it out. 

Karen also reviews for other outlets, such as the Newtown Review of Books, and since 2014 has been a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel - the New Zealand crime writing award. Her reviews of New Zealand crime novels will now be shared here on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction


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