Bestseller Breakdown: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton


The Luminaries.  Where to begin?  The 2013 Man Booker Winner was longlisted one week before it was published in hardback, surefiring its success.  The interesting question about this one for me is: would it have been a bestseller without the Booker accolade?

No one can deny it is an achievement.  Its clever plotting and structure, as well as Catton’s ability to hold so many balls in the air, evokes admiration.  But is that enough to make it a great book without the emotional connection we look for in a reading experience?  It’s the sort of mammoth book that have readers questioning as soon as they pick it up whether it’s worth the effort.  It’s a huge time commitment, and we all want to know if we’ll get out what we put in.  I’ll reserve judgment on that until later in this Bestseller Breakdown.

(c) London Evening Standard

What people are saying:

Critical Reception:

The reviews of the novel were all written on publication: hence when it had already been longlisted for the Booker.  This is likely to have increased coverage and influenced reviewers.

Most of the early reviews were largely positive.  The Telegraph admires ‘the cunning withholding of information, the elegant foreshadowing, the skilful looping back on the narrative’. The Guardian calls it ‘a dazzling feat of a novel, the golden nugget in this year’s Man Booker longlist’. Literary Review calls it ‘dense patient and rich’.

The Scotsman, though giving a 4-star review, criticises Catton’s weak characterization, [which is] at odds with the rest of the novel, [with] its intricate plotting and carefully wrought scenes’.  The Daily Mail doesn’t enjoy her omnipotent narrator: one minor quibble in an otherwise excellent review.  Kirsty Gunn in The Guardian calls it a ‘massive shaggy dog story; a great empty bag; an enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat’, though claiming that artfulness-over-substance is rather the point of the book.

The later reviews are more negative, a sort of backlash against its Booker win.  It is often the case that when a book garners some success there is an increase of expectations for new readers, leading to an higher likelihood of disappointment.  The more negative reviews mainly lament the slowness of the narrative and the abstraction of the phrasing.  The Financial Times claims it constantly reminds the reader of its position as fiction, making an immersive reading experience impossible: ‘ingenuity outruns admiration and becomes tedious’.  The Times calls it ‘painfully slow’.  In their second review, London Evening Standard gives the most negative analysis claiming that it was a struggle to get through.

Awards: Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2013, Winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award and longlisted for The Bailey’s Prize 2014,

Reader Response:

The average rating on GoodReads is 3.75 stars.  Most reviewers (70%) gave it 4 or 5 stars.  There were more positive reviews on GoodReads than on Amazon, and Amazon UK reviewers were the most critical, with only 57% 4 and 5 star reviews.  The reviewers who loved it praised its achievement, as well as its clever structure and the plotting.  Those who were disappointed didn’t feel connected to the book or characters and were glad to finish it.  Many people had read it as a result of it winning the Booker, and only completed it because they felt like they should.  No one denied it was an achievement.

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Aspects of the novel:

Plot or character driven? 

The Luminaries was conceived with the idea of using a the movements of the planets and stars over one year (April 1865 – April 1966) to structure the narrative.  It is therefore very much plot-driven.  As someone for whom reading is mainly about the connection with characters, I therefore found this novel difficult to engage with.


Gold-rush town of Hokitika, New Zealand in 1865-6.  This places the book in the historical fiction genre.


The novel has twelve parts, and each is half as long as the one before.  The first part is 360 pages, the last one barely one. This is a clever structure, reflecting the waning moon across the night sky.  But it means that by the end of the book, the introductory paragraphs are often longer than the chapter itself, and makes us detached from the action as we are being told what happened rather than shown.

Each of the characters are also likened to a planetary or stella aspect of the night’s sky, and the movements of these bodies during the actual time period between April 1965 and April 1966 define the plot of the novel.  This is such an outstandingly clever structure for a novel, and one Catton has stated began her whole writing process for it.  Having read The Castle of Lost Destinies by Italo Calvino – the plot of which is fashioned on a Tarot spread – she found herself disappointed.  As she says herself in an article in The Guardian on writing the book:

I wondered why it was that novels of high structural complexity were so often inert, and why it was that structural patterning so often stood in the way of the reader’s entertainment and pleasure. Did structure have to come at the expense of plot? Or could it be possible for a novel to be structurally ornate and actively plotted at the same time?

This, and a childhood love of adventure stories, was how the novel was born.  And she uses the structure brilliantly.  For me, the only loss is the characterization, which fails to emotionally draw in the reader.  We find ourselves in awe of her mastery as a writer, but that is as far as we can go.  Ultimately, academic admiration is only so memorable, and it is no match for an emotional connection.  As the late Maya Angelou said:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. — Maya Angelou


There are a huge number of characters (any book which requires a character list is always slightly off putting), and they were heavily over-described before we saw any interaction with them, which worked as a distancing device rather than to help us connect with them more.

In describing the characters, Catton breaks on of the key rules of writing: she tells, not shows.  She offers the reader long, detailed passages of description about each character’s appearance and personality, and then the rest of the book demonstrates this initial description.  As David Sexton wrote in The London Evening Standard, this acts as a ‘a sure-fire way of killing any curiosity’.  Also, as there are so many characters, many of them are male, and it becomes difficult to distinguish between them.

Why do we keep reading?

  • To find out what will happen.  The Luminaries is, at its heart, a series of mysteries, and we as the reader want the answers to them.  Who killed the hermit?  Where was Emery Staines?  Did Anna Wetherell really try to commit suicide?  Personally, I didn’t feel as compelled to find out the answers to these questions as I had in other books.

  • For the beauty of the writing.  Catton’s style of description means we really inhabit the town of Hokitika, and each scene is beautifully draw out.  It is only the characters that feel a little lose, or create less connection with the reader.

  • Because we are in awe.  This doesn’t work for the whole length of the novel, and I think it’s one of the reasons why so many readers give up on the book.  We admire Catton’s achievement, but this acts to distance us from becoming totally involved.  We are too busy thinking about what a clever writer she is: about the book as a book rather than enjoying the story.

  • Because it won the Booker.  Many of the reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads claimed they only continued with the book because it had won the Booker and they wanted to finish it to see what all the fuss was about and to join in the conversation.  It is a powerful motivator, and one that definitely motivated me when I wasn’t finding the story compelling.

 Why is The Luminaries a bestseller?

The Luminaries is a wonderful achievement.  It is a vast, epic novel, and it deserves the accolades it has received for this reason.  It will also be a bestseller for this reason.

I’m not sure if it would have been a bestseller without the Booker accolade, but would it have been a Booker winner if it wasn’t such a clever literary book?  Bit of a chicken and egg situation here I suppose.

For me, it lacks the power of my favorite sort of literature: those books that connect us to characters and offer us glimpses of other lives.  Unlike with The Goldfinch, which is of a similar length, I didn’t feel anything for the characters as the story drew on.  Whereas I had moments of overwhelming Donna Tartt awe, they didn’t take me away from the story, which pulled me onwards due to its compelling nature.  I continued with The Luminaries because it was an achievement I wanted to do justice to.  But when I finished it, I wasn’t longing for more, as I was with Tartt’s books.

I am excited to read Catton’s first book, The Rehearsal, which I’ve heard is very different.  And I heartily salute her for achieving all that she has with The Luminaries.

Have you read The Luminaries?  What did you think?

Want more? Read my Bestseller Breakdown posts for The Secret History and The Goldfinch.


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