The Luminaries — Eleanor Catton

2 min readMay 30, 2024


Just finished reading The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Finishing this tome feels like stepping off from a rollercoaster: one that starts off slow, a meandering runaway train through forest scenes before rampaging ahead into valleys and loops powerful enough to make your head spin.

The first four hundred pages are a detailed retelling of one conversation. Walter Moody is a Scottish merchant and newcomer to the shores of Hokitika, New Zealand in 1866. After an unnerving journey, he walks into a bar where twelve men are deep in secretive discussion. As he is new to the story, he also acts as the reader’s surrogate and with him, we learn of the peculiar events that have been occurring in the town from the past few weeks. Each of the twelve men details his own role in the affair.

It takes some real willpower to gnaw through this first section but Catton rewards our tenacity with precise, detailed prose. It’s very Dickensian, but unlike Dickens who, despite his liberal proclivities, was a stuffy Victorian man, Catton is a twenty-something year old female writer. Her modern sensibilities peek through just enough to keep the text fresh and enticing, despite its archaic setting.

Once we and Moody are all caught up, the narrative moves on apace as the plot unravels and details we previously believed to be true become shrouded in doubt. Summarising the plot here would be impossible, but the overarching themes of greed, corruption and manipulation speak conclusively to our modern day. I was rapt by the female characters and how they navigated their patriarchal world, as well as the standout character of Te Rau Tauwhare who represents the indigenous New Zealand populations being sidelined by their rapacious colonisers.

The novel follows the phases of the moon, and thus, each chapter is shorter than the last. This results in a frenzied ending which is the perfect conclusion to a sweeping work. There is so much to appreciate about this book, much more than a single reader can give credit for. I mean it when I say this is a seminal work and proof if we needed it that the art of classic novel writing is nowhere near dead.