The Luminaries is a tale of lies and deceit, fraud and vengeance, set amongst the goldfields of Western New Zealand in the 1860s. It was a time when men had dreams of getting rich very quickly based as much on luck as on hard work. But just as some are content to rely on the odds, others are willing to change the odds in their favour by nefarious means.
So when Walter Moody, a recent Scottish émigré, accidentally gatecrashes a clandestine meeting of twelve local businessmen, he is drawn into their various shady dealings. There is gold lost and found; a missing man; a dead drunk; a suicidal prostitute and a very sinister, scar-faced sea captain. There are tensions between the white settlers and the Chinese camp. Oh, and there is a token Maori. The writing, for the most part, is really good. The setting is conveyed well and the reader feels fully transported through space and time into a complex and authentic world.
But, and it's a big But, the involvement of so many players makes the novel far too complicated and grinds the pace down to a glacial speed. Every player has to have a relationship with each of the other players, resulting in many events being played out multiple times from multiple perspectives. Moreover, the use of reportage to create a non-linear time structure heightens the feeling of repetition. When it seems that the novel has finally moved on, it gets brought back again and again and again. The twelve main characters are supposed to represent different signs of the zodiac and perhaps those who like astrology would recognise their traits and interactions. But for the lay reader, the characters seem rather indistinguishable and, frankly, not much more than a personification of their job. The novel may be long (830ish pages) but is so full of plotting that there is little real space for characterisation. This can result in people forming alliances or breaking pacts for no obvious reason. We find out what people do, but have little insight into why they do them. OK, some of the main players (apparently the planetary and terra firma characters) have some slight backstory, but the others (the stellar ones) simply are as they are.
The pace does pick up eventually - after about two thirds of the novel - but what is not apparent from the page count is that this is actually the denouement. The many subsequent sections seem to be some kind of zodiacal obligation telling the reader nothing new and presenting historical events that had already been inferred. Moreover, as the sections wend their way to an end, the brief introductions to the chapters (as one finds in Victorian novels) grow longer and start to carry information in their own right, leaving the body of the section to carry only snippets of mercurial dialogue. This was necessary because each section had to be exactly half the length of the previous one (count the words if you don't believe me). This really is not a satisfactory way to end a plot-driven novel of this length.
I am sure there is a good story buried somewhere in The Luminaries. But just like the thin person struggling to emerge from every fat person, sometimes dieting in not enough and bariatric surgery is needed.
I had been greatly looking forward to reading this, but my experience with the book was somewhat akin to that of a swimmer who plunges eagerly into a river, but finds the opposite bank a lot further away, and the river a lot deeper, than first appeared... and the whole idea of making the crossing comes to lose its appeal.
It's not that it's a bad book. It's a beautifully-written pseudo-Victorian mystery, with a strong sense of time and place. Eleanor Catton's "The Rehearsal" was a very promising debut, flawed by over-complexity and over-ambitiousness. The problems of that book, far from being resolved, have been greatly compounded in "The Luminaries." It's simply too long (some 850 pages), too complex and too dull for pleasurable reading. Pseudo-Victorian fiction is a morass for inexperienced writers, tending to the production of much scribbling and damn'd thick, square books -- whereas the Victorians themselves could often be very concise.
Praised to the skies by critics, garlanded with prizes, this is a book which most ordinary readers will struggle with, and the reviews here show that. There are too many characters to remember, too many conversations to follow, too many mysteries to unfold. In a novel that should have been highly original, the reader is left with an impression of endless repetition, of scenes that sprawl and loll, of a prolixity of characters too much alike to one another to inspire interest. Like many other reviewers, I was numbed by boredom, despite the best will in the world.
The book could have worked very well at half the length or less, and with half the characters or less. A great pity. But Eleanor Catton is a very young author who is still learning her craft, and I am confident that her prodigious talent will produce a far better and more enjoyable book very soon.
on 26 November 2013
My dominant feeling on finishing this book was one of self-congratulation in actually having made it to the end. I have joined the elite band of readers who have done so, but I have not made it to the super-elite group who not only finished it, but understood it (but then I wonder if there are many at all in this category).
Normally, I would give Booker-prizewinners a wide berth, fearing over-intellectualism and incomprehensible story lines, but here was one with a crime/mystery theme, and by a New Zealand author, and I'm a NZer myself so, here we go...
For the first 150 pages, I thought my Booker prejudices were validated: hard going, put-downable, especially when I considered the hundreds of pages still to come. But I stuck with it and, very gradually, I found myself getting drawn in, with a mounting curiosity as to where it was going (as one might hope with a mystery). Things were looking up! (aided, I should say, means of one of the characters providing a 2-3 page summary of the story so far at the end of Part I, some 350 pages in - very helpful, this, you can look forward to it). And so on to the full 827 pages, but, after all that, to a damp-squibbish ending. Was that it? - after all that?
Notwithstanding the critics' accolades, I dare to say I can't understand how this story can be highly rated. The book is far, far, too long, moving at a glacial pace; the story is stupifyingly complex, propped up with far too many coincidental events and long-shot chance happenings; then there's the sleight-of-hand techniques such as two characters having the same name (or was it one character having two names? - can't remember, it's gone); and don't get me started on the resolution of the "missing bullet" saga - I'll keep this from you. Is this really award-winning stuff?
For me, the star of the book is the town of Hokitika and, in this aspect, I am fulsome in my praise for Catton's description of the era of the 19th-century gold rush in NZ's South Island, particularly on the West Coast; it's highly informative and enjoyable in that respect. It's a pity it's taken such a cumbersome vehicle to convey this.
on 12 August 2014
Don't whatever you do be tempted to read this on kindle. The whole experience felt like trying to chew through a piece of carpet. Very tough going. So much hype about a novel that as far as I can tell is all about its "clever" construction leaving the reader thoroughly dissatisfied with the content. Since the chapters follow the phases of the moon on a kindle this just compounds the feeling that the reader is getting nowhere fast as the percentage marker just does not seem to move regardless of the number of pages that have been waded through. Even by the end as the chapters become shorter there is no great feeling of being any nearer to making sense of what is actually quite a dull story line. Repetition is just tedious as the same scenario is told through so many different characters who all supposedly have the personality traits associated with their star sign. Emperor's new clothes if you ask me. My entire Book Group could not slate it enough!
on 24 October 2015
Eleanor Catton demonstrates a remarkable grasp upon a complicated story of suspected murders, fraud and opportunism in 1860s’ New Zealand. She is also remarkably well-informed about local, South Island New Zealand history and geography in the era of the gold-rush, about coastal navigation, and about various frontier professions, plus some astrology. Though a recent novel – it won the Man-Booker prize in 2013 – “The Luminaries” reads like a nineteenth-century English novel: aside from the expansive chapter titles (“in which …. “), the narrative catches that mix of detail and panoramic scale to be found in such very different writers as Trollope, Thackeray, Collins, Dickens, and Hardy, as well as less well-known figures. It is also “baggy”, to use Henry James’s critical description when unfavourably comparing his kind of novels with those of his immediate predecessors and some of his rivals.
However, it isn’t the baggy-ness that made me, in the end, find the novel failing to live up to the considerable post-Man-Booker publicity. It is Catton”s reliance upon what James calls “telling”, rather than “showing”. Considerable intricacy and scope can be combined but are, I think, best managed when readers are not told so much, so immediately: for example, the character of each the many main characters introduced is quickly sketched out for us. Moreover, what is going on at the same time in different locations is also made evident to us by the overall narrator. And all of this is in a sprawling mystery story, so that we are always aware that even if we don’t know what is going on in the multi-strand story, the narrator does know. That the narrative is made up of different third-person narrators makes no difference. “We”, as the overall narrator, encouragingly addresses us, are, at once, in the know only to the extent that is necessary for all the characters and their plots and plottings to be assembled.
I hope I have said enough to convey the great range of “The Luminaries” and how much it has to offer, while indicating why it lacks the complexity of those nineteenth-century novelists whom I have mentioned and who find other ways to narrate their stories. Many of the chapters work really well, not least the opening one when an outsider, Walter Moody from Scotland, happens upon a group of local men who, judging from their behaviour, have something to hide; actually, they have a mystery to unravel. It may be a number of mysteries but the question of whether there is one, terrible conspiracy, is soon before us. Unfortunately, the question of whether there are or are not underlying connections is known to the overall or general narrator but there are so many threads that s/he has to bring them together. Other reviewers have commented perceptively on how this is achieved.
on 28 February 2015
Brilliantly researched, The Luminaries held my attention (and closely too) for about 700 of its 830 pages. After that the book subsides into a frenetic series of chapters desperate to explain the excessively intricate plot but without any sort of proper resolution. Do the baddies (of pantomime proportions - scar on cheek for the man, leader-astray of virgins for the woman) get their comeuppance? Does the innocent observer Mr Moody find his fortune? We are never told. Apart from the ones that end up dead we aren't told how the characters come out of this complex tale.
Then there's the astrology. Astrological charts preface the sections and random-seeming titles head the chapters. What does Catton mean by this additional complication that she's not telling us? For me, who didn't 'get it' and who finds astrology as tedious as the spiritualism that makes a brief appearance in the book, this stuff was just annoying.
As the chapters get shorter, their introductory summaries (In which so-and-so happens) get longer until they burst out of their function and summarise a story which isn't told in the text. So at the end the book becomes shorthand as if Catton has got bored with the exercise and has suddenly realised how many pages she's racked up and wants to go down the pub.
The end of a novel is important - it's the final and most powerful impression the reader is left with. This is a book that really ducks the whole idea of an ending.
The book won the Booker without being the best novel of the year, not even the best on the short list and that's saying something.
Summary: I really enjoyed the build up but the conclusion was disappointing, no reward for wading though all those pages. Four stars for the bulk, one for the end, so three stars.
on 9 June 2015
This book was such a struggle. I gave up on page 264 although I'd lost interest long before that. It totally defeated me. I didn't engage with any of the characters. I didn't care what happened to any of them.
It wouldn't put me off buying another book by Eleanor Catton. Some of the writing is really exquisite. But a story this long really needs to move along. The pages felt very heavy!
It does have a lovely cover - !
on 31 January 2015
I managed to finish this book and I enjoyed it up to a point. It was however very complicated and I found myself re reading many parts to make sure I had grasped what was going on. Found the ending very disappointing.......the author just seemed to wind up as quickly as possible what had been a very long and drawn out plot. Ended up thinking ' oh that's it then is it?
This ambitious novel of over 800 pages is set in the gold rush of New Zealand in the 1860s. The complex plot involves stolen goods, stolen identities, greed, love, murder and retribution. The plotting is so intricate and linked to the signs of the zodiac and the astrological year – even to the extent of the chapters becoming shorter with the days…..
It starts with a meeting of twelve men (the twelve months of the year?) and they are joined by another man, Moody (thirteen lunar months?) I readily confess to not making head nor tail of the various charts and soon gave up trying to interpret them. The many press reviews of the book refer to it being “dazzling”, “irresistible” and “breathtaking”. I agree that the writing is good but the plotting is so complex it is hard to grasp and keep a track of. I only finished this book yesterday and already I would have a problem trying to explain the plot to someone. Another problem (for me) was that the characters were all a bit of a blur and I found it hard to differentiate between them. I had to keep reminding myself which one was Ah Souk and which Quee Long.
I am not averse to lengthy novels and have happily read my way through War and Peace, Middlemarch and The Goldfinch but I found The Luminaries a real slog.
on 18 January 2015
I heard good things about this book, and read enthusiastic reviews. I started off wanting to like it, and struggled on to the end expecting that on the final page I would understand why it won the Man Booker (although by the time I reached section eight I was pretty sure that it would never become clear). I felt cheated of the time I had invested in reading it. Although Eleanor Catton writes wonderful prose and the setting is intriguing, that wasn't enough. The structure is described as clever in many reviews - each of the twelve sections is half as long as the one before, and there are twelve characters to represent each of the twelve astrological phases - unless the structure is necessary, and used in service of the story and plot, it is not clever, in my view. The main problem for me was that I didn't know or care about any one of the characters. There is no character development and while there is lots of story, there is little plot, for example, it is totally unclear why almost all the male characters are in love with Anna, who is an opium addict and a prostitute, or why Anna originally sleeps with Crosbie Wells (at this point it seems she may not be a prostitute). Many other aspects of the story are senseless, including the title. My advice is give this book a miss.