Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

DSCF1369I know I am not alone in saying that picking up a lengthy book can be followed by a sense of trepidation. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is a perfect example of this. Coming in at a hefty 832 pages with a small font size meant that this book had stayed unread on my shelves for three years. That’s not even to say that I don’t enjoy big books; they are probably one of my favourites to read, and can often have more substance and development than much shorter book. But it can still be a big decision to commit yourself to a book of such size, especially when you don’t know what kind of book it will turn out to be. No one wants to waste their time and energy on something they could later regret, and naturally, shorter books are often a solution to this.

Nevertheless, this year I really want to tackle some of the more lengthy books on my shelves, and The Luminaries was where I chose to make a start. This book poses quite a challenge when trying to describe, with its difficult length being mirrored by its complicated plot.  Set in 1866, during the New Zealand gold rush, we are introduced to Walter Moody, a man who has come to escape his past and hopefully make his fortune. On his first night in town, Walter walks in on a strange meeting between twelve very different men.  Walter soon becomes a part of the strange events which the men are attempting to discuss; a wealthy man vanished, an apparently suicidal whore and a discovered fortune of gold.  Though very different in circumstances, Walter begins to learn that the events may actually be linked by a much more complex design that he could have imagined.

The book itself is about much more than the blurb is able to convey, with the small intricacies of the plot deserving more than a simple summary. The book actually won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, and having now read it, I am not at all surprised. I loved this book! I have so much to say about it, but I will try to make my thoughts as concise as possible.

The book’s opening immediately hooked me. We are presented with twelve very different men, who are obviously attempting to appear nonchalant, but who are obviously in the middle of something most mysterious which they wish to conceal. This is doubled by the fact that Walter Moody, the man we first meet, is also obviously hiding something, something which has frightened him terribly. This heightens the mood of the book, creating a tense atmosphere in which I felt as much a part of the group as the men themselves. The secretiveness of the books continues throughout the novel, with the plot thickening and developing in such a way that it was often confusing to attempt to prematurely make sense of the events. Whilst the men appear to have formed some sort of alliances, they are by no means free and open about everything.

Opening the book with a group of twelve men seems a momentous task, yet the author really does pull it off. This is really down to the phenomenal character building which is consistent throughout the entirety of the novel. I did not get confused with the characters, because each man was so very different , not only in appearance, but in their personality. Catton has this way of making her characters three dimensional, whilst still managing to maintain the grand scheme of her plot, weaving the events and characters together seamlessly.

The actual writing is exquisite.  Catton had a sophisticated writing style which was extremely reminiscent of great classical writers, especially ones of the Victorian era. Like these writers, Catton’s book focuses upon minute details, the in between moments which really brings the novel into a life of its own. Throughout the whole reading experience, I found myself constantly thinking of Charles Dickens – high praise indeed! This was not necessarily unexpected, as the book is a Victorian pastiche, but it was still pleasant to experience. The book also has many of the tropes found within Sensation Fiction, such as criminal activities, scandalous plots and a secret residing at the novel’s heart.  She is without a doubt a most talented writer, able to emulate the great writers of the past, whilst also bringing her own unique elements.

My favourite character, which may or may not surprise those who have also read the book, was Anna Wetherell, a woman commonly referred to by her trade; the Whore. In Anna I saw a wealth of complexities, a women who sells her body, is addicted to opium, yet is far more than the things she has become. Everything about her interested me, from her personality to her profession and her past. She is the kind of character you could examine over and over again and continually discover new things. A section of writing which I found particularly notable stated that:

‘Her profession demanded modesty of the strictest sort, paradoxical though that sounded. She was obliged to behave sweetly, and with sympathy, even when sympathy was not owing, and sweetness was not deserved. The men with whom she plied her trade were rarely curious about her. If they spoke at all, they spoke about other women – the sweethearts they had lost, the wives they had abandoned, their mothers, their sisters, their daughters, their wards. They sought these women when they looked at Anna, but only  partly, for they also sought themselves: she was a reflected darkness, just as she was a borrowed light. Her wretchedness was, she knew, extremely reassuring’. (p. 225)

If that is not a great paragraph to analyise not only the character of Anna, but also gender as a whole, then I don’t know what is!

What I thought worked so well about this novel was that although there were imitations of the Victorian Era, it was such a new part of history to me. I have never really learnt  or been taught anything about New Zealand history. When I think of the Gold Rushes, I think of America and the Wild West, not New Zeland. This time of history seemed such a unique idea for a novel, and I felt that I learnt so much throughout the reading experience whilst simultaneously being entertained. It was interesting to think how whole towns and cities were built on the promise of this industry, and that the hunt for gold gave birth to many of the towns alive today. I felt completely assured that Eleanor had done her research and knew what she was talking about from the wealth of details within the novel, including the colloquial/slang terms surrounding the trade.

One of the twelve men is actually a native Maori man, and that was a part of the book I would have loved to have seen developed more. Obviously with the scope of her book this was not possible, but even the brief glimpses into this man’s life provided fascinating insights into a culture so different to my own. It also encourages you to question the morals of governments, and the bleak history the world has with native and indigenous populations suffering for the greed of the crown.

One thing I want to address is perhaps the most challenging, and that is the astrological nature of the book.  This is a theme with is interwoven throughout the novel, and is actually ingrained into the structure through the use of the lunar cycle. Just as a moon waxes and wanes, growing bigger and then diminishing, so the chapters do. There are twelve chapters, with the first being the longest, and the successive chapters each growing smaller in size. If you are unsure what I mean, just look at the image on the book’s cover, and you might understand; full moon, half moon, total eclipse etc.  The book actually starts with a note to the reader discussing astrology. It made me a bit wary at first, and it was slightly overwhelming for someone with a limited knowledge of this. There are also horoscope charts at the start of each chapter  with the zodiac signs and their positioning, which is suppose to relate to various characters. If I am honest, I pretty much glossed over these things. I did not fully understand them, and I did not feel that they were integral to the story.

Whilst I applaud her ambition with the character/zodiac signs combinations, as well as the astrological structuring of the book, I think it is something that will go over a lot of people’s heads. Comparing such techniques to the actual plot, they seemed to become surplus, and secondary to what I actually enjoyed the most. Yet, on the other hand, I do think that the astrology is something that could be examined over and over again, providing rich details that you would never pick up on during the first read. Indeed, the symbolism, especially of two characters who reflect each other similarly to the way the moon and the sun does (one falling whilst the other rises), was cleverly done. Whilst I did not think that this was the most important part of the reading experience, and still think most of the astrological aspects will be lost to many readers (which seems a massive shame), I can also see its purpose and merits. In conclusion, I am completely uncertain as to where I stand with regards to this aspect of the novel.

This book is really not going to be for everyone; you have to completely willing to sacrifice your time and energy and put it into this book. The plots are not simple and neither are they incredibly quick in divulging their secrets, preferring instead to mature at a very organic pace. And yet, if you can commit yourself to this task, I feel that you will be extremely well repaid. I read this book in less than a week, whilst working full time, which is I think a testament to how well written it is. The book takes twists and turns not unlike that of a dingy Victorian London street, and captured my attention and imagination just as well as the contemporary writers of this period. Whilst the ending left me confused, and did not exactly provide a neat conclusion, it most definitely allows the book to be something which needs to be re-read over and over again for you to notice all the subtle hints which point at often maddeningly contradictory, yet thrilling, possibilities.

Publisher: Granta

Rating: 5*/5*




3 thoughts on “Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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