The Luminaries

The Luminaries is a 2013 novel by Eleanor Catton.[2] Set in New Zealand's South Island in 1866, the novel follows Walter Moody, a prospector who travels to the West Coast settlement of Hokitika to make his fortune on the goldfields. Instead, he stumbles into a tense meeting between twelve local men, and is drawn into a complex mystery involving a series of unsolved crimes.[3]

The Luminaries
First hardcover edition
AuthorEleanor Catton
Cover artistJenny Grigg[1]
CountryNew Zealand
Published2013 (2013) Victoria University Press (New Zealand), Granta Books (UK), Little, Brown and Company (North America)
Media type
  • Print
  • e-book
Pages848 pp.
AwardsMan Booker Prize

The novel has won many awards and honours, including the 2013 Man Booker Prize. It was adapted into a BBC Two/TVNZ miniseries in 2020.[4][5]


The story begins with one of the book's protagonists, Walter Moody, arriving in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel after having encountered a horrific sight on his ride to Hokitika. There, he meets the twelve men who become the protagonists of the book: Te Rau Tauwhare (a Maori greenstone hunter), Charlie Frost (a banker), Edgar Clinch (an hotelier), Benjamin Lowenthal (a newspaperman), Cowell Devlin (a chaplain), Sook Yongsheng (a hatter), Aubert Gascoigne (a justice's clerk), Joseph Pritchard (a chemist), Thomas Balfour (a shipping agent), Harald Nilssen (a commission merchant), Quee Long (a goldsmith), and Dick Mannering (a goldfields magnate).

The twelve men inform Walter Moody about the events that have happened leading up to the current night. Crosbie Wells, a hermit of no ordinary notice, was found dead in his cabin, from an apparently peaceful death. However, upon inspection, his cabin had several thousand pounds' worth of gold hidden inside it. Cowell Devlin found a letter which states that Emery Staines, a rich and well-liked man in Hokitika who has recently gone missing himself, was to pay 2,000 pounds to Anna Wetherell, a prostitute well known for frequenting the Chinatown areas of Hokitika, with Crosbie Wells presiding. The man who appears to be at the centre of all these occurrences is named Francis Carver, a violent person who coincidentally captained the ship in which Moody came to Hokitika. There is also a politician named Alistair Lauderback visiting town, himself a shipping magnate, who seems to be wrapped up in the mystery as well. Their council is interrupted by one of Dick Mannering's servants telling them the Godspeed, Carver's ship, and the one that Moody took, has foundered just off-shore.

Three weeks later, the wreckage of Godspeed is pulled up onto shore. Moody, however, mistakenly receives Alistair Lauderback's trunk, in which he finds letters revealing that Crosbie appears to be Lauderback's half-brother. Lydia Wells, Crosbie Wells's widow and Carver's mistress, also arrives in town to collect the money found in Crosbie Wells's cabin, as it is legally hers. While waiting for the claims to be processed, she plans to hold a séance to contact the ghost of Emery Staines. To do so, she hires Anna, who has recently given up prostitution. Lydia claims to know her from when she first arrived in Dunedin.

Ah Sook, Anna's previous opium dealer, goes to visit her. However, he recognizes both Lydia and Carver, who happens to be there at the time. Ah Sook had sworn revenge on Carver years earlier for murdering his father, and he will not rest until Carver is dead. After the séance, Sook goes to the hotel Carver is in to attempt to murder him. However, before he can execute his revenge, he is shot by George Shepard, the Gaoler, in an act of revenge for his brother, who he believes was killed by Ah Sook.

On the very same night, Emery Staines appears in Crosbie Wells's cabin gravely wounded. Te Rau Tauwhare brings him back to town to get medical attention, and he lives. He is reunited with Anna, who has also suffered some kind of injury, as it appears the two of them have fallen in love. Both of their conditions rapidly improve. After Staines has recovered, all living characters end up being called into a trial in Hokitika. The trial reveals the truths behind the crimes. It is revealed that Carver killed Crosbie Wells by drugging him with laudanum, Emery Staines cheated Carver out of his money, and much more. After the trial is over, Staines is sentenced to nine months of hard labour, Carver to years in prison, and Anna is acquitted. However, on the way to the prison, Carver's head is bashed in by Te Rau Tauwhare, using a greenstone, as vengeance for his old friend Crosbie Wells.

All living characters serve their sentences and Walter Moody finally leaves Hokitika to begin to prospect for gold.[6]


Each of the twelve men who comprise the council in the first chapter of the book is associated with one of the twelve signs of the zodiac. The title of a chapter in which one of these men plays a major role invariably bears that man's sign. The associations are as follows:

  • Te Rau Tauwhare (a greenstone hunter): Aries
  • Charlie Frost (a banker): Taurus
  • Benjamin Lowenthal (a newspaperman): Gemini
  • Edgar Clinch (an hotelier): Cancer
  • Dick Mannering (a goldfields magnate): Leo
  • Quee Long (a goldsmith): Virgo
  • Harald Nilssen (a commission merchant): Libra
  • Joseph Pritchard (a chemist): Scorpio
  • Thomas Balfour (a shipping agent): Sagittarius
  • Aubert Gascoigne (a justice's clerk): Capricorn
  • Sook Yongsheng (a hatter, a euphemism for someone who digs alone): Aquarius
  • Cowell Devlin (a chaplain): Pisces

The conventional characteristics associated with each sign serve as a skeleton upon which Catton builds to create fully fledged characters.[7] Te Rau Tauwhare is the only name on the list based on a real person; all others are fictional.[8]

Another set of characters is associated with heavenly bodies within the solar system.

Background and outlookEdit

Aged 14, Catton and her father went on a tandem trip from their home in Christchurch over Arthur's Pass to the West Coast. This inspired her interest in the 1860s West Coast Gold Rush, and she started thinking about a story.[8] She spent much time in Hokitika while writing the book many years later.[9]

Catton returned to Hokitika in March 2014.[9] She gave a question and answer session at the Regent Theatre with her British publisher, Max Porter, in front of a sell-out crowd.[9] She revealed that she had used the Papers Past website of the National Library of New Zealand to find suitable names for her characters. With Balfour an unusual name during the time of the gold rush, it is assumed that Catton adopted the surname of the marine engineer James Balfour who did an assessment of the possibility for a port in Hokitika during the gold rush.[10]

British producer Andrew Woodhead has optioned the novel for television, to be written by Catton.[9] Catton said that she would insist on the series being produced on the West Coast, as the flora and fauna there are unique.[11]


The book has been met with critical acclaim[12][13] and has been described as "a dazzling feat of a novel" by The Observer.[14]

Justine Jordan, writing for The Guardian, also noted positively that Catton deftly organised her novel:

… according to astrological principles, so that characters are not only associated with signs of the zodiac, or the sun and moon (the "luminaries" of the title), but interact with each other according to the predetermined movement of the heavens, while each of the novel's 12 parts decreases in length over the course of the book to mimic the moon waning through its lunar cycle.[15]

As of August 2014, The Luminaries had sold 560,000 copies, of which 120,000 were sold in New Zealand.[16]

Awards and honoursEdit

The Luminaries won the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the Governor General's Award for English-language fiction in Canada.[17] It was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize (2014).[18] It was longlisted in Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (2014). It is the longest book (at 832 pages), and Catton is the youngest author (at age 28) ever to have won the Booker Prize[19]. It was cited in The Wall Street Journal's "Best Fiction of 2013", The Christian Science Monitor's 15 best fiction of 2013 and The Economist magazine's "Books of the Year" (2013).[20]


The Luminaries was adapted into a six-part television miniseries by Working Title Television and Southern Light Films for BBC Two in association with TVNZ, Fremantle, and Silver Reel. The series was produced by Lisa Chatfield and directed by Claire McCarthy with the novel's author Eleanor Catton also being involved in the production process. Production was funded by the New Zealand Film Commission.[4] The series premiered on TVNZ 1 on 17 May 2020 and is also available on TVNZ's streaming service TVNZ On Demand.[5][21] In the United Kingdom, the series was intended for distribution by BBC Two [4] but premiered on BBC One on 21 June 2020.


  1. ^ "Cover Story #1: The Luminaries. Designed by Jenny Grigg". About Book Design. Archived from the original on 2 January 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.
  2. ^ "BBC News - Man Booker Prize 2013: Toibin and Crace lead shortlist". BBC News. 10 September 2013. Retrieved 11 September 2013.
  3. ^ "Man Booker Prize synopsis". Man Booker Prize. 2013. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
  4. ^ a b c "First-look image of Eva Green in BBC Two's The Luminaries". BBC Two. 21 March 2019. Archived from the original on 9 May 2020. Retrieved 24 May 2020.
  5. ^ a b "Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries hits TV screens this Sunday". 1 News. 13 May 2020. Archived from the original on 24 May 2020. Retrieved 24 May 2020.
  6. ^ Catton, Eleanor (2013). The Luminaries. Victoria University Press.
  7. ^ "Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton". A Case For Books. 21 October 2013.
  8. ^ a b Mussen, Deidre (14 March 2014). "Booker prize novel 'comes home'". The Press. p. ?. Retrieved 14 March 2014.
  9. ^ a b c d Mussen, Deidre (13 March 2014). "Writer back in 'spiritual' home". The Press. p. A7. Retrieved 14 March 2014.
  10. ^ "Eleanor Catton back in Hokitika". The Press. 13 March 2014. Retrieved 14 March 2014.
  11. ^ "Luminaries setting gets Catton visit". The New Zealand Herald. 14 March 2014.
  12. ^ "Booker prize shortlist sales dip as critical acclaim rises". The Guardian. 14 October 2013.
  13. ^ Scholes, Lucy (8 September 2013). "The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – review". The Observer. Guardian News and Media. Retrieved 11 September 2013.
  14. ^ Jordan, Justine (15 October 2013). "Eleanor Catton asks novel questions with epic ambition in The Luminaries – review". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
  15. ^ Knight, Kim (4 August 2014). "Eleanor Catton's stellar success". Archived from the original on 4 August 2014.
  16. ^ Rinehart, Dianne (13 November 2013). "Eleanor Catton wins Governor General's Literary Award for The Luminaries". Toronto Star. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
  17. ^ "Walter Scott Prize Shortlist 2014". Walter Scott Prize. 4 April 2014. Archived from the original on 15 April 2014. Retrieved 27 May 2014.
  18. ^ Masters, Tim (15 October 2013). "BBC News - Man Booker Prize: Eleanor Catton becomes youngest winner with The Luminaries". BBC News. Retrieved 16 October 2013.
  19. ^ "Books of the year: Torrents of words". Economist. 7 December 2013.
  20. ^ Burgess, Linda (17 May 2020). "Review: TV adaptation of The Luminaries has both the glitter and the gold". The Spinoff. Archived from the original on 23 May 2020. Retrieved 24 May 2020.