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The Luminaries Paperback – October 7, 2014
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"Irresistible, masterful, compelling...The Luminaries has a gripping plot that is cleverly unravelled to its satisfying conclusion, a narrative that from the first page asserts that it is firmly in control of where it is taking us...[Catton is] a mistress of plot and pacing..."―The Telegraph (5-star review)
"The type of novel that you will devour only to discover that you can't find anything of equal scope and excitement to read once you have finished...Do yourself a favour and read The Luminaries."―The Independent
"A very clever, absurdly fun novel that reads like a cross between a locked-room mystery, a spaghetti Western, a game of Sodoku, and Edwin Drood."―New York Magazine
"To say that The Luminaries is daringly ambitious in its reach and scope doesn't really do it justice."―The Wall Street Journal
About the Author
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The characters who scrabble for gold in the Antipodean mud—and those who prey on them—are often venal, sometimes self-sacrificing, or both. There’s a whore with a heart of dross, a naïve greenhorn willing to do anything for a handful of pure, a local Mr. Big with many small schemes, a name-changing bounder, an identity thief, some claim-jumpers, a shipping clerk, a couple of Chinese, a Frenchman and a Maori. There’s a trunk full of gowns full of gold. There’s a shipwreck, a shiptheft, opium here and opium there, a dramatic séance, and a trial of the century…and it’s all governed by astrological predetermination—which is upside-down because everything happens in the Southern Hemisphere.
“The Luminaries” won Britain’s premier literary prize for its prodigiously talented 28-year-old author. If you have a spare week, read it.
Eleanor Catton is a very skilled writer, as is evident from the first eloquent page. But I feel like she's writing to show off how good she is, how complicated she can make a story, and her admittedly research skills. I'm impressed with her fortitude, but in the end, I don't feel anything except kind of stupid for not understanding it, and for sticking it out when I clearly wasn't going to. Why all the astrological references and chapter headings? Why all of those male characters, utterly without charm, and their long dissertations about gold and australia. Why the icky bad guy couple with absolutely no redeeming qualities that might make them more interesting for readers? Why the endless elaborate "reveals" of details of when various events happened when I don't care a bit about WHAT happened, and less about the people it may or may not have happened to? Why the several lumbering plot twists that are telegraphed for 30 pages before they finally occur. No surprises, no characters i cared about in the least. Was my kindle edition missing critical pages? Did skipping the introduction mean I was doomed to flounder through the book like a 7-year-old reading the Sound and the Fury?
And the final insult is that the mystery is never quite solved at the end of the 800 pages. I don't quite know what happened. Not much, as far as I can tell. I have read extremely long novels---love tolstoy, dickens, brontes, etc. This book is sort of trying to do that, but in a modern way, where nothing happens, or rather, the same series of not very interesting events is re-examined from multiple points of view.
It's a great cure for insomnia.....other than that, if you're not obsessed with the Australian gold rush or astrology, I'd skip this one.
Top international reviews
I suspect that the stylistic prose became something of a distraction to author and editor alike (and perhaps those deciding on its status as Man Booker winner...?); its successful in that it feels authentic, but its major drawback (I think) is that it comes across as dispassionate and detached. It ultimately serves as a handsome gloss over what is (in my opinion) really quite a thin story with characters I don’t feel I’ve got to know that well and don’t feel inclined to potentially change that by ploughing on, and really don’t care much about them. What use is a masterful grasp of the language of the period if as modern readers we feel alienated by it, kept at arm’s length? Isn’t a key aim of historical fiction to help us access the inner world of characters so that despite any differences due to time and space etc they feel real and to an extent at least, relateable? At times I felt something for Catton’s (many, many) characters, but soon got bogged down in wordy prose and felt indifferent about their fates once again.
Definitely a case of style over substance. Sadly Catton fails to truly engage and enthral, despite the considerable potential of both her subject matter and geographical setting. I won’t be continuing to read it as life already feels too short for all the wonderful stories I want to pack in. Wonderful because they both entertain, challenge and feed me. I know they exist because I have enjoyed so many already :) :)
Shame , I was really looking forward to being swept away by the atmosphere of the West Coast of South Island but I wasn't swept away by anything.
I had a vested interest in finishing this book as Catton is writing about the history of the country I grew up in, a country that was settled by immigrants to a New World of which I (and the author) was one.
There is so much to admire in this hugely ambitious book, not least the complex structure. As the astrology is the key to understanding the overall circular structure, each of the twelve parts is prefaced by an astrological chart. At at the start of the book a character chart highlights the personality types in each sign of the zodiac. Then there is the interplay between the astrological chart with its twelve signs of the zodiac and the structure of the twelve parts themselves. Each one is half the length of the preceding one until the last chapter is barely more than a few paragraphs long.
The Luminaries is beautifully written and Catton has a sly sense of humour, particularly in her use of language that mimics the style of Wilkie Collins and Dickens. However, where Catton and Dickens do differ is in terms of characterisation. I was determined to finish this book, but by the time I'd read 75% of the book my favourite character had been killed off. And I realised that even by this late stage of the book I had very little emotional connection to the remaining characters. There were one or two I felt sorry for, but that's different from actively wanting to find out what happens to them.
And then I had a moment of realisation as I thought about that circular structure. That must mean then that there wasn’t necessarily going to be a resolution. It turned out that I was right as I and many other readers were left with many unanswered questions. This, of course, may have been intentional. I'm afraid though that because I invested so much time reading this book, this unfinished business left me feeling rather let down. I did push on and finish it but didn't feel at all moved by the end or indeed did I take away any deep or lasting themes.
Although I suspect this book, which has won a host of literary awards, will go on to be studied as an example of A Great New Zealand Novel, for me it was a four star rather than a five star read.
Despite the nightmare that is the first part I would recommend persevering, it did actually become a page turner towards the end with some of the characters getting better developed and a much stronger narrative. The mysteries that developed become unravelled in their many strands, but are not all explicitly explained to the reader.
I started reading it for a reading group. Be interesting to see what the others will make of it. I suspect I will probably have read further than most, but cannot see any of the other keen and active readers, finishing it.
When a book has to resort repeatedly to Dickensian summary recaps just to give the reader half a chance of working out who means what to whom, and why, then something has gone wrong.
The author can indeed write, but her plot direction and characterisation need much work.
At the end of the first section the plot is summarised in chronological order, which certainly helps, but seems to me a clumsy device. As the book unfolds it improves and there were times when some characters started to become real to me as individuals and I started to become absorbed.
I disliked the supernatural / mystical element in the relationship between Anna and Emery Staines. I enjoy fantasy and magical realism, but in this book the author is at pains to create a historically and geographically real setting, and yet strange things happen (Emery suffering a gunshot wound when Anna is the one shot, Anna becoming very thin when it is Emery who is starving) without any of the characters remarking on it.
Each chapter has an astrological phrase as a heading – not being into astrology I couldn’t see the relevance of these and nowhere are they explained.
Most of the book is taken up with minute descriptions and observations of the characters, and Catton is clearly a very skilled and eloquent writer. It just seems a bit of a shame that these characters, most of whose back-stories, inner workings and interrelations are examined and revealed as the book progresses, don't really do all that much. It feels almost a bit of a waste to have such a detailed, vivid setting, and then to have very little actually happen in it over 800 odd pages.
Except for a few minor specific details, the overall plot didn't feel twisty enough to be properly gripping. The key facts of the 'mystery' are repeated so often that the 'connexions' and plot twists are often blatantly obvious to the reader hundreds of pages before the characters gradually puzzle them out. There was no real attempt at misdirection or leading the reader down the wrong path and revealing dramatically that the real answer is something unexpected. Rather, the plot is gradually revealed in a fairly linear manner, leading to a conclusive but not particularly exciting ending.
I enjoyed The Luminaries for its style and characterisation, but the plot (and particularly the framing of the plot) was not quite up to the (admittedly fairly high) standard I expected and was hoping for.
However - I join our Book Club to read books that challenged and ones that I wouldn't normally consider and this one certainly meets those criteria.
The initial hurdle was the language but once in tune with quaint nature of 'old English', that issue quickly dissipated.
The next challenge related to the structure - reading the differing views of the key characters of the same drama that has hit their small community.... a 'murder'. That sounds quite simple but the problem was that each 'view' was encased in the descriptions of each character, a potted history of how they came to be in remote mining area of New Zealand and their relationships with numerous other of the books players. If you are driven by the solutions of the mystery the long preamble could be intrusive and repetitive.
But - and this is a big but - the author is a wonderful wordsmith and her descriptions are enthralling. You will breathe the damp air and suffer the claustrophobia of the emerging society of the mining town and you will taste the mud and degradation of the actual mining area.
By the by - this is a weighty tome! It will not fit through the letter box. Good luck.