The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The luminariesWhen Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries was declared the winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize, almost every article and review drew attention to  the fact it was the longest novel ever awarded the prize and Catton the youngest ever winner. Much was made too of the genre affinity between Catton’s  work and that master of the sensation novel, Wilkie Collins. Most reviewers seemed to agree with the Booker judges who called it “extraordinary, luminous, vast,”. The only dissenting voices came from the panel convened by one of the UK tv channels the night before the award who admired Catton’s technical virtuosity but didn’t feel it was the best book of the year, and David Sexton in The London Evening Standard who argued that a stunning feat of construction didn’t necessarily equate to a great book.

Having now read this 832-page tome, I find myself more in David Sexton’s camp than that of the Booker judges.

That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I did.  Catton really knows how to tell a good story (but then she’d have to be good at this in order to keep people engaged through such a lengthy book).  Her plot is intricately crafted and she manages the multiple story lines deftly, making you want to keep turning the page to find out what happens next in this tale of death, deception and doomed love set in New Zealand during the time of the gold rush.

The book opens on a stormy night as the young Scottish lawyer Walter Moody,  lands on the shores of Hokitika, a town hurriedly constructed to service prospectors seeking to make their fortune in the surrounding hills and rivers. Shaken by an incident on the boat he goes into the first hotel he comes across, badly in need of a restorative drink and a bed for the night. He finds himself in a room of 12 men who slowly begin to reveal their unease about some strange recent events in the town involving a whore, a dead hermit and a missing fortune. Together these 12 luminaries set about trying to get to the bottom of these events by piecing together the knowledge each of them holds. Although they are not constituted as a jury they do weigh up the evidence from each man’s version of events and make judgements about some of the people involved.

Catton made much of the fact that she structured her novel on astrological movements, using a software programme to help her pinpoint the exact positioning of the stars corresponding with events in the book. Each chapter begins with an astrological chart indicating which characters are in ascendancy on the date in question. I tried to follow this but couldn’t see much beyond the fact the chart indicated which characters would be the focal point of the chapter. It felt like an artifice that didn’t add much to our understanding of the story.

Initially the story is told in the form of a nested narrative where the 12 men tell their stories to Moody, in the hope he can make sense of their complex and multifaceted tales. This moves to straight forward narration of specific events but then at the end Catton loops right back to the beginning with some short chapters (some just two or three paragraphs long) which reveal the backstory and fill in the missing elements.  Along the way we get plenty of melodramatic episodes with a shipwreck, a murder trial and a seance.

All the elements are there for a darn good read. And yet, for all its technical prowess, there was something missing from this book. It was difficult at first to pin down what that missing element was but eventually it dawned on me that what I was lacking was any sense in which the novel illuminated the human condition. Outside the plot there wasn’t much else of substance, all was really smoke and mirrors and the characters just faded out rather than came more sharply into view the more we heard them speak. There was little that caused me to pause and reflect, in short there was little evidence of the emotional or philosophical weight that I expect from a Booker prize winner.

And that’s really my issue.  The Luminaries IS a really enjoyable, well crafted novel and is one of the best of its kind I have read in many years. But it’s not up to the gold standard that the Booker should represent. How the judges chose this over Jim Crace’s Harvest is just baffling.


About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 14, 2014, in Book Reviews, New Zealand authors, world literature. Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Eleanor Catton claims never to write about anything she hasn’t experienced.

    This must mean that she was in the 1860s gold rush..,how OLD is she ?

    I didn’t finish it and only know one person who has !

    Anyone who makes any unfavourable criticism is a cultureless fool as far as EC is concerned; she really is a precious wee princess. Her fury when she didn’t win the Book of the Year in New Zealand (she won the People’s Choice and the Fiction awards) was terrible and she’s been banging on about it ever since, as if she was robbed of something that was hers as of right. She didn’t win because of jealousy over the Booker Award, according to her.

    She can’t be insulting enough towards tje NZ government, although these unclultured, money-grubbing destroyers of the planet as she calls them sponsored her and enabled her to write the book, have paid for its translation and have paid for her to travel around to book events where she repays them and the NZ people by telling everyone what clods we are and how we’re all jealous of her (the tall poppy syndrome)

  2. Agreed, and well put. It was an enjoyable read but lacked emotion or character. And the whole astrology thing was pointless – would have been better if it had integral to the plot but the one time it was a plot point it was a pretty minor one. I also didn’t find the denouement particularly clever or surprising. I was very surprised the Booker judges picked it. Perhaps they just appreciated its readability?

  3. First of all, hello. Nice to meet you via LitLove’s blog. You have done a masterful job in writing your review here; I so struggled with mine last winter I wonder if it makes sense at all. While thoroughly enjoying the book, and it’s intricacy, I mourned a lack of philosophical depth as well.
    I love a good story, but I want meaning behind it. As for judges being baffling, I was never more disappointed when the IFFP awarded The Iraqi Christ the prize in May. While an interesting book, I felt the move was more political than merited. Edward St. Aubyn has written a nice parody on the Booker in his latest book, Lost for Words.

    I look forward to more conversations with you. Your blog, your writing, are wonderful.

    • Oh gosh I am blushing now Bellezza. I find writing these reviews quite tough which is why I am so far behind with them. Some I am happy with then others just don’t seem to come together. The St Aubyn book had some mixed reviews didn’t it.

  4. I agree that the structure dominated the book and it felt like a distraction at times. It is still a work to be admired though.

  5. It does seem we came to similar conclusions about the book, enjoyable but something ultimately lacking. I would really have liked it if there was more depth to Anna’s story. For me she was the most interesting character that we didn’t really get to know

  6. I did love the book, but I agree the astrological stuff seemed pointless and added nothing for me especially as I have no interest in astrology. For me the brilliance was in the weaving together of the story strands and the atmosphere she created of the town.

  7. I can only repeat some of what’s above. I’ve had this sitting to be read for ages but I can never quite find the time/inclination/mood or whatever else I need to make me pick it up. But I think deep down it’s just that I can’t see how it can be as good as Harvest!

  8. I still have this to read. There never seems to be a long enough gap between books that need reading for a specific date to get round to it. However, like you, I doubt that any book could be better than Harvest. I wonder what the Booker judges have in store for us this year now that American titles are to be considered? Only nine days to go to the long list announcement.

    • I’ve been trying to think what we might see in the long list this year but haven’t really come up with anything yet. Nothing stands out so far for me from this year’s titles.

  9. I liked this considerably more than you, I think. I agree about the pointlessness of the astrological stuff, but I felt that she gradually built up such a detailed picture of the town that i actually felt I had been there. It was the town as a whole that I loved rather than the individual characters – and when I subsequently googled pictures of the town I realised what an accurate picture she had planted in my mind.

    I loved the writing in Harvest, but felt the book fell away badly in the last third and meandered on far longer than it needed to. Had it finished at 70%, I might have felt it would have been a worthy Booker winner…

  10. I recently read The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, a book that has received more than its share of press over here. That would normally be enough to put me off, but I had a review copy and the premise sounded tempting. 700 pages later… what a disappointment.

    I was tempted by this one, but passed as I usually don’t go beyond WWI except for classics. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t hear about the Wilkie Collins comparison as that may have led me to the book.

    • You might well have saved me from another fat book in that case Guy. I was contemplating the Quebert Affair while mooching in an airport outlet since that was the only thing on offer of any interest. But something was holding me back – 700 pages is a big investment only to find it was a disappointment

  11. What did you think about the length of the book? I haven’t read it, but I’ve considered picking it up. For a mystery, the book seems absurdly long. Do you think the length was necessary? Is it more than just a mystery? Thanks.

    • It doesn’t feel particularly long Fariba, partly because the narrative keeps switching between the different individuals. yes it is a bit more than just a mystery – at the heart of it is a love affair really.

  12. I read this book early this year and was quite taken by it. I loved the way it curled in on itself and left us with just two characters wrapped in it’s web. I loved it as a mirror/commentary on the history of the novel — the waxing and waning of narration and dialogue — and the way the chapters changed in composition. I did not understand the astrological significance beyond some general heavenly/earthly influences or constellations of characters.(I fear if anyone looked at this closely, it would not stand up structurally and if it does, it is not worth the trouble of investigating unless you are an avid astrologer — and many readers are not.
    I have terrible trouble rating books as winners or not and haven’t read Harvest. I agree that I don’t know how this book will stand up in time — if that should be some measure of consideration, but I found it both innovative and intriguing.
    I may not have read it, if it didn’t get Booker attention.

    • I think you read it much more attentively than I did Barbara. I did like the way the book went back to the beginning in order to draw it to a conclusion – far more satisfying that way. Nice to hear from you again by the way.

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