“The Luminaries” is set in a town called Hokitika, a Maori word that means “around and then back again”, which offers a clue to the book’s real framework. Twenty characters, every one fully formed, fill the story in 20 chapters, each half the length of the one before and offering what Ms Catton calls “a prismatic view” of events. The plot is based on the signs of the zodiac, a post-modern circular mystery that is astrologically precise and encompasses whores and drunkards, hidden gold, ships and séances, a murder and a lot of mud and bad weather.
Charlotte Higgins spoke to one of the Man Booker judges, Stuart Kelly:
[H]e said that it was [Catton’s] ability to “make the novel think in a way that the novel doesn’t do normally” that set her apart; the way that, for example, she sets astrology and capitalism into play as competing systems of dealing with the world, but at the same time has produced “a rip-roaring read”. “The prize went to the true avant-gardist,” he said. “No novel has been like this before.”
Martha Anne Toll emphasizes the author’s 19th-century influences:
[Catton’s] literary ancestry derives less from her homeland and more from the British and American giants of the nineteenth century. Catton deserves their company. Nodding to Melville, she’s nailed the tormented sea captain and the revenge obsessed “Chinaman.” With so many characters taking on false identities and trying to out-cheat each other in New Zealand’s gold rush, Catton, too, has mined the seamy underside of greed and poverty so beloved by Dickens. Like George Eliot, Catton looks behind the stereotype of the whore and the opium dealer and forces us to question where the real morality lies. By the novel’s end, every character’s initial presentation has been destabilized.
Bill Roorbach appreciates that “Catton has built a lively parody of a 19th-century novel, and in so doing created a novel for the 21st, something utterly new”:
It’s a lot of fun, like doing a Charlotte Brontë-themed crossword puzzle while playing chess and Dance Dance Revolution on a Bongo Board. Some readers will delight in the challenge, others may despair. I went both ways: always lost in admiration for this young New Zealander’s vast knowledge and narrative skill, sometimes lost in her game, wishing at times for more warmth, delighted by her old-school chapter headings (“In which a stranger arrives . . . ” “In which Quee Long brings a complaint before the law . . . ”), puzzled by her astrology, Googling everything twice and three times, scratching my head, laughing out loud, sighing with pleasure at sudden connections, flipping back pages and chapters and whole sections for rereadings, forging ahead with excitement renewed.
In an interview with Nick Clark, Catton describes what she learned from The Luminaries:
Writing the book, Catton says, became about the quest for self-knowledge. “It explored the degree to which the knowledge of your destiny corrupts a person. A lot of the characters in the book are engaged with their own pasts. What I’ve realised – partly from The Luminaries and partly just a life lesson – is the most revealing thing you can do is to surround yourself with people unlike you. And if you’re an artist the best thing is to read things that are most unlike what you are doing.”