The Luminaries Summary
by Eleanor Catton

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The Luminaries Summary

The Luminaries is a novel by Eleanor Catton that examines a series of mysterious occurrences in Hokitika, New Zealand, during the gold rush of the 1860s.

  • The protagonist, Walter Moody, arrives from Britain in 1866. In his hotel, he finds a group of twelve men discussing recent events.
  • A prostitute, Anna Wetherell, appears to have attempted suicide; a recluse, Crosbie Wells, has been killed; and Emery Staines, a gold miner, has disappeared.
  • After following the men’s conversation and subsequent events of the present day, the novel shifts back to 1865 to recount the backstory that led up to the novel’s beginning.

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Set in 1866 New Zealand during the height of the gold rush, The Luminaries opens with protagonist Walter Moody’s arrival on the West Coast of Hokitika in a bid to make his fortune from gold. When Moody arrives at the Crown Hotel, he enters a smoking room where twelve men are congregated in what appears to be a “party accidentally met.”

Moody hints that his voyage aboard the ship Godspeed is one steeped in horror and mystery, and he has flashbacks of a “clutching silver hand.” Walter has come to Hokitika following his father and brother’s deception. After Walter’s mother died, his father, Adrian, remarried; Adrian eventually abandoned his new wife, leaving her penniless. Later in the novel, Moody catches up with his father, a drunk and unforgiving man, and it emerges that his father and brother, Frederick, had arranged the abandonment together, leaving Moody feeling betrayed by the men he had thought closest to him.

The men at the Crown reveal that a series of tragic events has brought them together—the attempted suicide of a prostitute, Anna Wetherell; the murder of a local hermit, Crosbie Wells; and the disappearance of a gold miner named Emery Staines. Alistair Lauderback, one of the men, had been attempting to run for the Westland Parliament and, on the journey to Hokitika, discovered Crosbie Wells dead in his cottage and Anna Wetherell unconscious in the street.

The men’s retelling of events reveals that Crosbie’s wife, Lydia, and her lover, the villainous Francis Carver, stole Wells’s fortune. Carver introduced himself to Lauderback as Francis Wells, thus implying that he was the brother of Crosbie Wells. He used his knowledge of Lauderback’s affair with Lydia to blackmail Lauderback into giving him the Godspeed. Lauderback’s trunk, containing dresses weighted with four thousand pounds of gold, then disappeared, and Anna later purchased these dresses from the wrecked Titania. When Quee Long, a goldsmith, found out about the dresses, he took the gold and smelted it as if it had come from the Aurora mine, ensuring that some of the profit was returned to him.

Anna, who was apparently pregnant with Carver’s baby, was assaulted by Carver, which is thought to have resulted in the loss of the baby. Carver had been seen in the area surrounding Wells’s cottage with a vial of laudanum, and he had sailed for Dunedin shortly after Wells’s death. Lydia then turned up to claim her late husband’s property. While clearing out Wells’s cottage, Reverend Devlin discovered a deed of two thousand pounds intended for Anna. The deed was signed by Wells, the witness, but not Staines, who intended to give Anna the money.

Once the men have finished recounting their narratives, Moody reveals that while aboard the Godspeed, he heard a voice shouting “Magdalena, Magdalena, Magdalena ” while down in the cargo hold. The voice—in addition to a “furious knocking”—was coming from inside a shipping crate, and when Moody pried the crate’s lid open, a bloodied man emerged. The men believe that this man was Emery Staines, and one of the men explains that the name Magdalena must refer to Anna, as it is “a name to give a whore.” Moody is unsure if the bloodied man was real or simply an “apparition,” but before they can reach a conclusion, the boy guarding the council bursts through the door...

(The entire section is 1,523 words.)