Customer Review

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Like gold-dust, shimmering but insubstantial, 17 April 2014
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This review is from: The Luminaries (Paperback)
Difficult to understand why "The Luminaries" has received the plaudits that it has. As a novel, it's a hybrid of Victorianism and Modernism, but unfortunately containing the worst excesses of both - the excessive verbiage of the former and the off--putting self-conscious cleverness of the latter.

The subject matter - a gold-rush, opium, the supernatural, revenge, and double-dealing - promises a cracking yarn. Instead, the story seems to meander from incident to incident; the lead villain possesses no real sense of menace; while there's a nice sense of period, there was, to me little sense of place, and I received little to no impression of New Zealand as a fledgling nation; and the silly device of making each chapter half the length of the preceding one, echoing the waning of the moon, means that the novel culminates in a muddled, rushed and unsatisfactory conclusion.

Some reviewers have complained that there were too many characters, but I'd suggest that a principle failing in "The Luminaries" is that there weren't enough. There are lots of names, certainly, but very little sense of individuation between them, even between the principle twelve characters, making nonsense of the conceit that they're representative of signs of the zodiac. The device of having the omniscient narrator tell us directly who the characters are meant to be, rather than making them real people through physical description, or describing their personality by giving them distinctive speech patterns, also grates a bit. Here are two examples (from the paperback edition):

p39: (He could not recall any of those names, and in truth had only remembered Gascoigne's because his former Latin master had been Gascoyen - the familiarity had drawn his eye).

Isn't the concluding part of the sentence implicit from the beginning? Is the narrator really telling the reader anything we wouldn't have realised? Or:

p316: Lowenthal cherished an outsized fear of catastrophe, and was prone to over-analysis in self-contemplation; his reasons for actions were always many, and rationalized in the extreme. We shall pass over these reasons why," etc

Why bother to offer this information only to gloss over it? As recurs repeatedly throughout "The Luminaries", we're given an assertion of a character rather than a depiction of it; and for all the omniscience of the narrator, what this suggests instead is the inadequacy of the author.

I do feel guilty about offering such an unfavourable review of Catton's novel, as I met her last week in Edinburgh at a book signing, where she fielded questions from the audience with great good humour; and, contrary to a huffy comment I read elsewhere (not on Amazon, I think) which claimed she was "big-headed", she seemed really grounded, and, if anything, surprisingly shy and hesitant (I'd also add that, as the youngest ever winner of the Booker, she probably has every right to swagger a bit, if she felt inclined to do so!).

Catton remarked in her talk that she was an avid reader of children's fiction, and that she regarded "The Luminaries" as a children's book in disguise. I'd agree with this. Despite some admittedly wonderful writing, comparisons to Dickens, or even to Collins - although the influence of the latter is manifest - are absurd, and have been made by critics who should know better. I'd suggest that the most accurate comparison would be to Dorothy L. Sayers, and those who love her detective novels, with their similar emphasis on chatter rather than action, will probably also enjoy this.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 2 May 2014 19:04:45 BDT
Mike Collins says:
Great review, Steven, though meeting the author seems to have diluted your criticism - "I do feel guilty..." - well, don't! You say comparisons to Dickens and Collins are "absurd"; I'd say libellous. Thanks for your enjoyable review.

In reply to an earlier post on 3 May 2014 00:35:01 BDT
Last edited by the author on 3 May 2014 14:49:32 BDT
Steven Brake says:
Thank you - maybe I have been a bit gentle in my criticism, but having met Catton and had two copies of her books signed, it feels slightly nasty to then post a less than effusive review!
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