The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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  • Hardcover: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; First Edition edition (October 15, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316074314
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316074315

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“Reason is no match for desire: when desire is purely and powerfully felt, it becomes a kind of reason of its own.”

The Luminaries

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“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.”

– Review: Bill Roorbach, The New York Times

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I made it through this year’s Booker Prize winner but it was exhausting. The book’s a brick, packed with characters, the plot twisting and turning on itself so many times I didn’t even try to keep count. I didn’t keep all the plot lines straight, a fact that may make other readers feel a little better. The reviews I read revealed the major relationships to watch and I heeded their advice. Aside from that, I managed to follow a couple others and that’s as well as I could do without keeping a score card. If you can honestly say you made it through this book without nearly losing your mind, I salute you. In my case, I highlighted passages madly, thinking I could always come back to them, trying to make sense of things. Trouble was, things weren’t conveniently truthful nor linear.

In short, my method didn’t work so well.

The Luminaries is set in New Zealand, during the late 1860s gold rush, similar in many ways to the California rush of the 1840s which I suppose makes sense. One gold rush in a largely unpopulated and wild area is equivalent to another, I imagine. I find the gold rush era compelling and it’s certainly a fantastic setting for all manner of depraved and troubled characters. Catton took full advantage of that, creating such a cast of characters I’ve personally never encountered outside the novels of Charles Dickens.

What a wild, wild ride…

The setting of the book is unrefined, populated with prostitutes and prospectors, bankers and opportunists. Chinese workers perform the hard work for a tiny percentage of the profits. Murders aren’t uncommon and jailers are so busy prisons are in desperate need of expansion. Back-stabbing, suspicion and any vice you can name run rampant, including very high-profile drug addiction.

As the tale opens, a new arrival named Walter Moody enters the scene, finding a group of twelve men gathered in a hotel for the purpose of trying to get to the bottom of a murder, as well as a disappearance, of two local men. As for the rest, I can honestly say it’s far too complicated for me to dissect, as stories are told and disproved, alibis declared and found to be lies. In the end there is a trial. Witnesses testify to things the reader could never have guessed, while in the midst of it all everything is confused, turned on its head. I couldn’t explain it all if you paid me.

The very heart of the book actually contains a romance, if you can digest that. The young whore, Anna Wetherell, is in love with… No, I won’t tell, not that it really gives much away, in the grand scheme of things. I could reveal a few dozen plot points that would still have no chance at all of spoiling the plot of this book. It’s just… Oh good God. It is what it is.

The question remains: was it a worthwhile read? Tough to say. Had it not won the Booker, and had NetGalley not provided me with a copy, I wouldn’t have finished reading it. As it is, I picked it up and put it down innumerable times, when it’s a book best read in long sessions. Note taking is highly encouraged. I don’t know how one can keep track of anything, otherwise. I don’t have time for such extensive scholarship, not when it’s a modern novel. A classic, okay. But The Luminaries isn’t time-tested. It just exhausted me.

If you enjoy 800+ pages worth of convoluted puzzles – and unreliable characters – you may find this the god of all such books. It isn’t without merit, by any means. It contains lots of fun passages, many tongue-in-cheek humorous moments, as well as some which are poignant. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, etc. The characterization is staggering, the handling of so many plot lines impressive to the extent I can’t even think of a word to describe it. Masterful, that does the trick.

The fact the author was 22 when she wrote this book will make your head explode. If you’re a writer, it will send you away sobbing. It’s just unnatural what Eleanor Catton managed to pull off. No one should be able to create such a symphony from this wild cacophony. But she did. I bow to her, while at the same time I admit it was all far too much for me or my enjoyment.

As author Jay Parini puts it:

“All really good books shatter their generic origins, becoming a thing unto themselves. But rarely has this axiom held more firmly than in Eleanor Catton’s thrilling – in every sense – second novel. The sheer weight of the narrative might seem daunting; but dismiss that. She is among the finest of storytellers, drawing us forward through a labyrinth of lives, all of them converging in ways you could never easily imagine. I didn’t want this novel to end.”
—Jay Parini, author of The Last Station

Unlike him, I wanted it to end, before my brain exploded. My mantra: please let it end, please let it end… It’s a singular experience you can only understand if you attempt it. Let’s leave it there.

I’m a bit befuddled as to why the Man Booker committee chose it, and still think the honor should have gone to the incredibly spare prose of Jim Crace, but there’s no accounting for it. I guess it was the mammoth accomplishment of the book, which I still maintain was far, far too much. Earlier I compared the work to Dickens but I love Dickens and find his complicated plots satisfying. The Luminaries? Not quite so much.

But congratulations, Eleanor Catton. You managed something that will keep the literati busy a long time. Well done for that.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

  1. Excellent and honest review as always. I don’t think I will be reading this. To my shame, when I see the length of the book as having over 800 pages my thinking always starts with, how many other books could I read in the same time. Terrible I know, but with the huge reading list I have coupled with University work it is just too daunting.

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  2. I have mixed feelings on huge books. Depends on the author and the subject matter, I guess. When I was a teenager I was a classics snob and went on to study literature in college. Then, the thicker the book the better. But I’ve come to appreciate spare prose and tightly-written tales. But this book… Can I recommend it, can I not… I guess it depends how much patience the reader has and the older I get the less time I’m willing to invest, unless a book is really exceptional. If you’re still in your university years then yes, I’d agree with skipping it!

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