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Customer reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars
3.6 out of 5 stars
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VINE VOICEon 28 February 2015
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.
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on 28 September 2016
From an obsessive reader, feel too many precious minutes of my life were wasted in getting to the end of this tedious book. A boring story told by twelve different characters, coming to conclusion that was obvious in first page. Feel very cheated. Worst, most pointless book I have ever read. Why? What does it say? Nothing, except look how clever I am, counting every word in every chapter. No character illuninated. Ridiculous title in the circumstance.
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on 5 August 2016
Far too 'wordy', particularly descriptions of individual characters which prevents the reader forming their own minds eye picture of the person. Too much unnecessary description in the first third of the book makes it extremely hard to follow what is a complicated story line. Very Dickensian in style. Reading this for a Book Club so felt I had to finish it. It was very hard work and I felt not worth the struggle.
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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.
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on 7 November 2015
Tiny writing at the start of the chapter was a challenge to read and others of middle age will surely find the same.

The story is complicated and rushes to an eventual conclusion by which time it seems both author and reader have ceased to care. The kind of overly clever book that prize judges love but will soon be forgotten. Hard work to read, too long, nobody cares.
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on 31 January 2016
There was a point a few chapters into The Luminaries at which I thought: Wow. Wow. This author is going to pull off the impossible: to actually write a Victorian novel better than any novel the real Victorian age has left us. To combine all that we have learned since then about plotting, about literary technique, about lightness and less-is-more, with the commitment to storytelling, the sense of discovery about character, the sheer age-of-steam energy with which our predecessors invented the novel. She’s a Kiwi Wilkie Collins on speed, and this book is an artistic phenomenon, a parody that manages to beat the parodied genre at its own game even while sending it up … as Ruddigore did for Victorian stage melodrama, or Cold Comfort Farm for the pastoral novel. What does it matter, in the end, if it doesn’t ‘mean’ very much? A firework display doesn’t have to mean anything at all, and it can still leave you walking on air …

But, alas, the initial excitement faded away and the book seemed to run out of steam. The plot solutions strained credulity too far, and too many plot-holes were left gaping. Characters who had been set up for major reckonings or personal crises dropped out of the story, or were freed from their difficulties by a few lazy strokes of the pen. The astrological sub-text seemed quite redundant. On nearly every page the Victorian language, so beautifully sustained for the most part, was interrupted by some twenty-first-century Americanism – deliberate, perhaps, but it would have been so much more stylish to keep up the voice. The verbiage grew excessive – much more than was needed to convey the atmosphere; I felt that if nothing had been omitted but the descriptions of characters fiddling with smoking paraphernalia while they decided what to say next, there would have been fifty more pages to reward the innocent, punish the guilty and tie up the ends properly – instead of the chapter-summaries, so delightful at first, being called upon to wrap up the whole story at breakneck speed, with a general sense of exhaustion and deadlines having passed.

One of the chief delights of The Luminaries is its godlike, Tolstoyan, George Eliot-like snap judgements about characters, where it seems as if the author has seen to the heart of a truth about human nature, with all the confidence of that golden pre-psycho-analytical age. ‘In his evaluations of other men, Löwenthal first identified an essential disparity in their person, and then explained how the poles of this disparity could only be synthesised in theory, and by Löwenthal himself. He was fated to see the inherent duality in all things …’ Such élan! Only gradually do we come to realise that the author’s own evaluations of her characters proceed on the Löwenthal method; half the time we are presented with some profound insight about them only for their behaviour to contradict it blatantly within a few pages, if it has not already done so. Making it all the harder to remember which of them is which …

Now it may be that all this goes to show how immensely clever the author is, in a tricksy, post-modern way. Kirsty Gunn in the Guardian [11/09/13] saw through it: ‘an enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat: for nothing in this enormous book with its exotic and varied cast of characters whose lives all affect each other and whose fates are intricately entwined, amounts to anything like the moral and emotional weight one would expect of it.’ And she went on, in that inimitable Guardian way: ‘That’s the point, in the end, I think, of The Luminaries. It’s not about story at all. It’s about what happens to us when we read novels – what we think we want of them – and from novels of this size, in particular. Is it worth while to spend so much time with a story that, in the end, isn’t invested in its characters? Or is thinking about why we should care about them in the first place the really interesting thing?’

Well, no, actually, Kirsty, I don’t think it is. Thinking and caring about literary characters can be infinite; wondering why you should care about them is something you need only do once, and even then it doesn’t take you anywhere in particular. It's sterile. The great majority of readers of fiction have not signed up to the post-modern project. They still believe in the old-fashioned bargain between author and reader: if the readers are going to hand over their money, they want the author at least to pretend that the story matters, until the end of the last page. Indeed there is lots in The Luminaries that really does matter, even by Guardian standards. For instance, the way that, by contrast with ‘real’ Victorian novels, the non-white characters, the Chinese and the Maori, have their say, and their backgrounds and individuality are given equal weight, seriously and credibly. Is it fair to them to bottle out, half way through the story, and say, in effect, ‘Just kidding!’? More generally, there is the sheer weight of historical knowledge that has gone into the recreation of this (to Brits) little-known and remote episode, the New Zealand gold rush. That the author wears her research so lightly – it reads as if she was there, seeing it all out of her window, not as if she had mugged it up – is deeply impressive. That she then seeks to imply that the whole thing has just been a trivial pastime seems to me to be selling herself short.

So I want to say to Eleanor Catton: don’t squander your brilliance. Next time, find a project where love and need are one, and the work is play for mortal stakes, and stick it to the blasted Guardianistas. But of course she doesn’t need my advice. At the very least, she can blooming well write, this lady.
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on 26 April 2017
Challenging read, well worth the effort. I intend to read it again.
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on 3 October 2015
Everything that needs to be said is said over and over again in the numerous 1star reviews. Pretentious.Tedious.Tortuous. Interminable..... etc. Not a redeeming feature to be found.
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on 5 November 2014
Good Read
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on 8 August 2017
Very well constructed, both epic & personal, with a great well managed cast of characters. I have not read any of the authors other works but shall now look. All in all a fine novel set in an interesting time period
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