Reading Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries and Birnam Wood

I don’t know about you, but I get great satisfaction out of finishing a really long book. A big book can be hard to pick up off the shelf because it implies taking a risk, meeting a story and getting to know it, understanding that this will be a significant commitment. That you are in a relationship with the story and its author and you’re all going to be here for a while. But man, when it works out, it's a beautiful thing.

Eleanor Catton has written three books, and I have recently read two of them. Her first, The Rehearsal, was written as a part of her Master’s thesis in 2008 and remains unread by me. Perhaps I’ll pick it up. I read Birnam Wood last year, a 2023 novel that was a long, involved story of a radical ecojustice group in a shady and increasingly perilous situation on a New Zealand billionaire’s rural property. It was a 2023 Giller Prize finalist. That led me to read The Luminaires, which I just finished. It won the 2013 Booker Prize. I read it as a part of a group read over two weeks and the conversations that we had while reading were a wonderful addition.

I’m not going to go so far as to say that these two books were the best I’ve read, but I enjoyed them, and I think that both were worth entering into a reading relationship with. I’ve noticed that both books require a lot of attention to complexities of plot and language in the first parts, which sets up an easier and more satisfying reading experience in the second halves. Perhaps I liked The Luminaries a bit better than Birnam Wood? But the latter had an amazing ending, so that counts for lots of points! I've shared my review of both of them here. The review for Birnam Wood is shorter, as it was originally posted on my Instagram account @trishtalksbooks.


The Luminaries (2013)

My Quick Take: Hands down, this is the most intricately plotted book I have ever read. If you put the effort in up front, there are generous rewards to be had.
“The brandy had roused him; he was warmed and dried; and nothing caused his spirits to lift more surely than the promise of a tale.”
Well! This was a big book at 832 dense pages. My first door stopper of the year. And I have to thank my own Tackle Your TBR Challenge, and also my readalong organizing buddy @rainysundaybooks for the motivation to pick this up off my shelf and read it this month.

I confess having some doubts about this book as I read for the first few days. It required intense concentration, and I had to laugh as the author–probably on purpose–gave recaps of the plot via the characters’ inner musings. Phew!

Sticking with the book and reading diligently for almost an hour everyday paid dividends in full. I became immersed in the world of 1867 Hokitika, on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island during a gold rush. Twelve men meet in the dingy back room of the Crown Hotel, each with a small piece of the puzzle to a murder mystery. Catton metes the mystery plot points out slowly, bit by careful bit, in real time and by examining past events. It is so intricate that it feels like a complex work of art.

From the outset I admired Catton’s skilled prose, in particular the descriptions of the characters, which painted a vivid portrait in few words.

Of Walter Moody: “In his life so far he had known only the kind of doubt that is calculated and secure. He had known only suspicion, cynicism, probability–never the fearful unravelling that comes when one ceases to trust in one's own trusting power; never the dread panic that follows this unravelling; never the dull void that follows last of all.”

Of Charlie Frost, the young banker: “...this fellow was languid, even catlike: he moved with a kind of casual luxury, as though he saw no need to spend his strength on swiftness...His face was broad and his eyes spaced widely; his lips were full, his teeth very crooked, and his nose rather large. These features conspired to form an expression that was both honest and nonchalant–and nonchalance is a form of elegance, when it demands much, and declines to reveal its source.”

Of Joseph Pritchard, the chemist: “...conspiracy enthralled him. He formed convictions as other men formed dependencies–a belief for him was as a thirst–and he fed his own convictions with all the erotic fervour of the willingly confirmed. This rapture extended to his self-regard. Whenever the subterranean waters of his mind were disturbed, he plunged inward, and struggled downward–kicking strongly, purposefully, as if he wished to touch the mineral depths of his own dark fantasies; as if he wished to drown.”

And finally, of opium: “ was ectatic and divine: its sacredness lay in its very profanity, and its profanity, in its sacred form. For what a solemn joy it was, to wait in silence for the resin to melt; to ache for it, shamefully, wondrously, as the sweet scent of it reached one’s nose; to pull the needle through the tar; to cut the flam, and lie back, and take the smoke into one's body, and feel it, miraculous, rushing to one’s very extremities, one’s fingers, one’s toes, the top of one’s head!”

The book reflects the time it was written, with discrimination and misogyny fully on the page, which came up in our discussions. But Catton was able to balance this by giving us the Chinese men and the women’s points of view, along with one Maori man who plays a central role.

I know little about Western astrology, which was a key part of the organisation of this book. I thought it would be a more obvious influence on the text, but it wasn’t overt. I had to read on Wikipedia after I was finished about how the book related to astrology. Apparently, each of the twelve men in the original Crown Hotel meeting is a “stellar” character represented by one of the zodiac signs. Then there are seven “planetary” characters associated with each of the planetary bodies in the zodiac. The murdered man is “Terra Firma.” This was laid out in the Character Chart. But what I didn’t understand was that there were twelve sections, each shorter than the last, reflecting the waning of the lunar cycle, and that each of the characters’ zodiac sign served as a framework on which Catton based her character. The title of any given chapter bears the sign of the man who features prominently in the chapter. And not only all of that, but Catton used the real astrology charts for the dates in the book, so that determined the story to some extent. It is very complicated.

Complicated, but in a way a bit unnecessary. When I read all about her use of astrology in this book after I had finished the book, I can’t say that it added a ton to my reading experience. To me, it felt like a device that made crafting and writing the story much more interesting for Catton herself, than affecting the casual reader very much. And it was cool reading about it after all was said and done, but more in the spirit of admiring her creativity than in an “it mattered to the story” type of thing.

So stick with this book and ride the wave of this complex murder mystery, reading along as it gains momentum and comes to a white-capped peak and I think you’ll be satisfied with the story and suitably impressed with Catton’s craft. This was a door stopper that was worth the time.


Birnam Wood (2023)–written before I read The Luminaries and taken from my original Instagram post of March 1, 2023

My Quick Take: An ultimately interesting and satisfying read, though it had a changeable nature.

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Random Canada for a digital copy in exchange for my unbiased review

I haven’t read Catton’s 2013 Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, but her new novel was getting a lot of buzz so I was excited to give it a try. How could I not want to, given that Stephen King said, “As a multilayered, character-driven thriller, it’s as good as it gets.” Okay! And it seemed right up my alley: an eco-thriller that promised environmental issues and scares.

New Zealand’s Birnam Wood is a grassroots environmental farming collective, harvesting food for donation and sale. On the sly, leaders Mira and Shelley guerilla garden as well, planting in spaces without permission. Internal rifts threaten the group, then a very risky deal presents itself in the form of a Libertarian billionaire.

The beginning of this novel started quite slowly. It was well written and interesting, but it required a lot of effort from my brain (and that's okay!). There were long pages of character backstories. Catton’s characters began debating politics at length, and even though I’m moderately well versed in political issues around the Left and Right, I wasn’t sure I was smart enough to know how much this was satire, and how much Catton meant this to be taken at face value. Essentially, though, I think it was satire. I think.

I settled in for an interesting but long ride. However, the book is a bit of a chameleon. At about the 50% mark, things really picked up. Here was the thriller bit! The pace quickened, and I realized the first half of political talk and character exploration had neatly set up the second half. I was quite riveted. I couldn’t wait to finish the last bit–in a good way. It’s not horror or a classic thriller by any means, but it has those elements and is quite smart about it. I particularly liked the ending and the very last sentence.

What happens when you make a deal with the devil? Do the ends justify the means? What’s a woke guerilla gardener to do? You’ll have to read it to find out…


There you have my reviews of two door-stopper length books by Eleanor Catton. I expect she may publish a new book in a few years and I’ll likely read it! If you’ve read one or all of her books, what did you think? Feel free to leave a comment below.


  1. Excellent post! Birnham Wood was my favourite read of last year and I definitely plan to read The Luminaries. There is something magical about committing to a longer read and getting immersed in the story. Kim (the_salty_islander)

    1. Thanks Kim! Now I'll be really interested in what you think of The Luminaries. I'm considering going back and reading her first book too...we'll see!


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