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Crafting a Story from the Stars: The Art of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

By Dara Lusk

We were all taught not to judge a book by its cover. But, if we’re being honest, that is exactly what we do. And that is how I stumbled on The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton while wandering Barnes and Noble almost two summers ago.

Its cover’s blend of a deep twilight sky, symmetrical stars, lunar phases, and classical art piqued my interest enough to dismiss its over 800-page length and buy it on the spot.

The story takes place in the New Zealand mining town Hokitika amid the 1860s gold rush. On one strange night, a drunk hermit dies while in possession of an unaccounted-for fortune, a rich young man vanishes, and the town prostitute experiences an opium overdose while not on the drug. These bizarre events can be easily cast aside, but revelations soon connect over a dozen people who all demand it be resolved.

A tangled web of conspiracy, greed, gold, and fate, The Luminaries is a mystery novel that can only be described as epic magic. The story itself is compelling but its unique style sets it apart. Both its style and content are rooted in astrology.

Whether or not you’re a hardcore astrology believer, we are all familiar with the twelve zodiac signs that correspond with the sections of the sky which appear at different intervals throughout the year. Author Eleanor Catton utilizes this in a way no other author has.

Nothing about The Luminaries is coincidental. It’s cosmic.

The first chapter introduces twelve characters, each corresponding to a zodiac. Their personalities and occupations are based on the traits of those zodiacs. There is also a set of planetary characters who correspond to heavenly bodies in the solar system, such as the Sun/Moon, Mars, and Venus. These assignments also dictate the character’s personality as well as the importance to the plot. All these characters revolve around one man who represents the Earth.

The novel is broken into twelve sections, each of which grows shorter as it progresses to mirror a waning moon. Each section heading gives a date and coordinates along with a star chart corresponding to that information. The chapters are named after the characters it follows such as “Mercury in Aquarius” and “Saturn in Libra.”

It is far from a perfect novel, but the artistry alone is worth the read. Beyond her use of astrology, Catton has phenomenal control of the syntax she carries throughout the novel.

While reading, I was ecstatic to learn BBC was working on adapting it into a six-part miniseries. (In my experience, the BBC has the best adaptations. Their War and Peace and Les Miserables miniseries are the best a book-lover could hope for.) I waited over a year for it and finally got to binge it to my heart’s content last week and boy, oh boy, I was not disappointed!

Filmed entirely on location in New Zealand and sporting Eva Green, Himseh Patel, and Eve Hewson as leads, it is a visual treat.

Normally, I’d feel sinful admitting I enjoyed the miniseries better than the book, but in this instance, I don’t. Catton also penned the screenplay, making every change not only done with the author’s blessing but done by the author! The miniseries channels the novel’s interlocking storylines through a different perspective to create a continuation rather than an adaptation. The show focuses on three celestial body characters rather than the twelve planetary characters like the book. This helps hone in on what’s most important and reduce filler. I felt I was able to grasp the plot quicker while watching than I had been reading.

I believe both the novel and show can be enjoyed without the other, however, they fully showcase and complete Catton’s magic when viewed together.

So the next time you are looking for a long book to dive into or a miniseries to binge, I highly recommend The Luminaries.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton can be found in most places books are sold. The miniseries can be rented or bought from Amazon Prime Video or Youtube.

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