Gushing reviews are easy to write, (so are pans), but what to say when you know that a book is well written, innovatively and creatively structured, and is destined to be loved by many, but it just didn't appeal to you? "The Luminaries" by Eleanor Catton, is such a book. Short-listed for the Booker Prize, this novel, that weighs in at over 800 pages, takes a bit of a commitment to get into and, once invested, it must "grab" you to continue. I got half-way through and then had to have a "talk with myself" about continuing. It just isn't my kind of novel and continuing was going to take too much of my precious reading time. Yet, I was far enough in to see that its innovative style of folding back in on itself will appeal to many readers. It's like a complicated pastry; the plot is kneaded and folded to produce the confection intended. This is not a novel for readers who like their plots to be linear.
Catton's writing style is beautifully lush and vividly descriptive. Her descriptions of the myriad characters are wonderfully rendered both in the descriptions of their physical selves and of their inner selves. Catton also creates a unique and interesting setting of a New Zealand gold mining town in the mid-nineteenth century.
I'm posting this candidly honest review to help other readers ascertain if they are the type of reader who will enjoy this unique novel, or not.
on August 25, 2013
This astonishing historical novel opens in Hokitika, New Zealand in 1866, a gold mining town along the West Coast of the South Island. Founded two years previously, Hokitika is in the midst of a population boom, as prospectors, hoteliers and other businessmen have flocked there after news of its vast riches and promise of easy wealth has reached people living within and outside of New Zealand. One of those men is Walter Moody, a young Englishman who is trained in law but seeks gold to provide him with material comfort and the start of a new life. He arrives in town after a harrowing and emotionally distressing voyage at sea, and after he checks in at a local hotel he proceeds to its smoking room, where he hopes to unwind with a pipe and a stiff drink. Upon his arrival he notices that 12 men are already there, who appear to be from different backgrounds but also seem to have gathered in secret for a particular reason. The atmosphere in the room is tense and troubled upon his entry, but in his agitated state Moody doesn't sense that he has disturbed them. He is approached by one of the men, while the others appear to direct their attention toward their conversation, and after slowly gaining their confidence the men begin to share their intertwined stories with Moody, and the reason for their confidential meeting.
The story is centered around several mysterious and apparently interconnected occurrences that took place two weeks previously on a single night, including the death of a hermit in a shack overlooking town, the disappearance of a young man who has struck it rich in a gold mine, and the apparent near suicide of the town's most alluring prostitute. Every man in the room claims to be innocent of any direct involvement, yet they all appear to share some responsibility in the events that led up to these crimes, and each one fears that he may be accused and held accountable.
The reader learns more about these 12 men, Moody, and several other key players, as the story takes on a more defined shape. However, just as it seems to become more clear new twists arise and relationships emerge between previously unconnected characters, which made the tale more compelling and delightfully puzzling. I exclaimed out loud numerous times at various points ("Wait, what?" "Whoa!", etc.), and except for one relatively dead spot near the novel's midway point I was captivated from the first page to the last.
No review could adequately convey the intricacy and complexity of this novel, along with its numerous subplots and themes, and Catton's ability to maintain its momentum through 832 pages was akin to a performer riding a fast moving rollercoaster while juggling various objects of different sizes for hours on end. My biggest critique is its ending, which felt rushed and overly tidy, and despite its length I would have preferred for it to have been extended by another 50-100 pages.
"The Luminaries" is a masterful literary symphony, and a work of historical fiction that compares favorably with similarly superb novels such as The Children's Book, The Stranger's Child and The Glass Room. There are few books of this size that I would love to start reading again immediately after finishing it, but this is one of them, and young Ms Catton is to commended for a brilliant novel that should be a strong contender for this year's Booker Prize.
Twelve men meet at the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, New Zealand, in January, 1866. A thirteenth, Walter Moody, an educated man from Edinburgh who has come here to find his fortune in gold, walks in. As it unfolds, the interlocking stories and shifting narrative perspectives of the twelve--now thirteen--men bring forth a mystery that all are trying to solve, including Walter Moody, who has just gotten off the Godspeed ship with secrets of his own that intertwine with the other men's concerns.
This is not an important book. There is no magnificent theme, no moral thicket, no people to emancipate, no countries to defend, no subtext to unravel, and no sizable payoff. Its weightiness is physical, coming in at 832 pages. And yet, it is one of the most marvelous and poised books that I have read. Although I didn't care for the meandering rambling books of Wilkie Collins, I am reminded here of his style, but Catton is so much more controlled, and possesses the modern day perspective in which to peer back.
I felt a warmth and a shiver at each passing chapter, set during the last days of the New Zealand gold rush. Catton hooked me in in this Victorian tale of a piratical captain; a Maori gemstone hunter; Chinese diggers (or "hatters"); the search for "colour" (gold); a cache of hidden gold; séances; opium; fraud; ruthless betrayal; infidelity; a politician; a prostitute; a Jewish newspaperman; a gaoler; shipping news; shady finance; a ghostly presence; a missing man; a dead man; and a spirited romance. And there's more between Dunedin and Hokitika to titillate the adventurous reader.
Primarily, THE LUMINARIES is an action-adventure, sprawling detective story, superbly plotted, where the Crown Hotel men try to solve it, while sharing secrets and shame of their own. There's even a keen courtroom segment later in the story. And, there are crucial characters that are not gathered in the Crown that night who link everyone together. The prostitute and opium addict, Anna Wetherell, is nigh the center of this story, as she is coveted or loved or desired by all the townspeople.
The layout of the book is stellar: the spheres of the skies and its astrological charts. You don't need to understand the principles and mathematics of astrology (I don't), but it is evident that knowledge of this pseudoscience would add texture to the reading experience, as it provides the structure and frame of the book. The characters' traits can be found in their individual sun signs (such as the duality of a Germini). The drawings of charts add to the mood, and the chapters get successively shorter after the long Crown chapter. The cover of the book illustrates the phases of the moon, from full moon to sliver, alluding to the waning narrative lengths as the story progresses.
"But onward also rolls the outer sphere--the boundless present, which contains the bounded past."
Take note of the cast list at the beginning, which is quite helpful for the initial 200 or 300 pages. With so many vivid characters coming at you at once, it is difficult at first to absorb. However, as the pages sail (and they will, if this appeals to you), you won't even need the names and professions. The story and its striking, almost theatrical players become gradually and permanently installed, thoroughly and unforgettably. From the scar on Captain Francis Carver's cheek, to the widow's garment on Anna Wetherell's gaunt frame, the lively images and descriptions animate this boisterous, vibrant story.
Catton is a master storyteller; she combines this exacting 19th century style and narrator--and the "we" that embraces the reader inside the tale--with the faintest sly wink of contemporary perspective. Instead of the authorial voice sounding campy, stilted, and antiquated, there is a fresh whiff of nuanced canniness, a knowing Catton who uncorks the delectable Victorian past by looking at it from the postmodern future.
You will either be intoxicated by this big brawl of a book, or weighed down in its heft. If you are looking for something more than it is, then look no further than the art of reading. There's no mystery to the men; Catton lays out their morals, scruples, weaknesses, and strengths at the outset. The women had a little poetic mystery to them, but in all, these were familiar players--she drew up stock 19th century characters, but livened them up, so that they leaped madly from the pages. There isn't much to interrogate except your own anticipation. If you've read COLOUR, by Rose Tremain, don't expect any similarities except the time, place, setting, and the sweat and grime of the diggers. Otherwise, the two books are alike as fish and feathers.
The stars shine bright as torches, or are veiled behind a mist, like the townspeople and story that behave under the various constellations. Catton's impeccably plotted yarn invites us to dwell in this time and place. At times, I felt I mined the grand nuggets of the story, and at other times, it blew away like dust.
"But there is no truth except truth in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating never still...We now look outward...we see the world as we wish to perfect it, and we imagine dwelling there."
on September 7, 2013
Eleanor Catton's "The Luminaries" is set in the New Zealand gold rush of the late 1860s. It's a story about greed, power, gold, dreams, opium, secrets, betrayal and identity, but most of all, it's a celebration of the art of story telling, both in terms of Catton's book and the stories her characters have to tell. It's the kind of book that is perfect escapism and which wraps you up in its world. If you like big, chunky books that you can get lost in for hours, then this is one for you.
Second novels are notoriously tricky, especially when they follow one that has received the critical acclaim that Catton had for her debut, "The Rehearsal". Fortunately, no one seems to have told Catton this and "The Luminaries" is a very different style of book but one that is an even more remarkable and memorable achievement. Also notable is Catton's writing style. This was the standout feature of her debut novel and this is equally stylish but in a very different way. There are hints and nods to some great writers both period and more modern throughout, notably a touch of Charles Dickens, a splash of Wilkie Collins, a smidgeon of Robert Louis Stevenson, a dash of Salman Rushdie and a hint of David Mitchell, yet all combined in a freshness that is uniquely Catton's. It's more homage than a plagiarism of style. The one element that is common to both this and "The Rehearsal" is what comes over as the author's sheer love of story telling - there's a constant sense of fun in her descriptions and she writes as if she has a smile on her face and is as entranced by the story that is being set down as her readers are.
The opening scene accounts for the first 300 pages as the story is introduced from different perspectives, but essentially Walter Moody arrives in the small gold rush town of Hokitika and settles into one of the more basic hotels only to find that he has interrupted a clandestine meeting of twelve very different people who are all in some way linked to the death of a local hermit, the apparent suicide attempt by the local "lady of the old profession" as the judge will later term her and the disappearance of a young, successful and very rich prospector on one eventful night.
The webs of relationships between these twelve men and the victims are complex and at first take a bit of concentration but Catton is alert to this and offers frequent summaries and in particular a rather fuller précis towards the end of this first part to make sure that the reader has picked up on all the salient relationships. The web of intrigue is part of the joy of the book and some you won't fully discover until much later on.
The book then jumps forward a month for a couple of parts before moving back to the past. The past chapters are much, much briefer and this change of style is one that you will either love or hate I suspect. It's one of the more modern touches to what otherwise feels like a very traditional narrative voice.
Although I absolutely loved the book, this was despite two aspects that might prove more of an obstacle for other readers. Firstly, while Catton's descriptions of people's characters are an absolute joy, she is guilty of telling the reader rather than showing. In many ways this is unavoidable with the size of her cast and this is very much an ensemble piece so to show each character trait would be challenging and slow the plot down.
The other aspect that failed to really gel with me is the astrological framework of the book which frames each part. Catton explains that she is more interested in this as a device for exploring character traits rather than any form of belief in determinism, but the device is so subtle that the reader is largely unaware of the relevance. I can see the use of the framework to the writer but I'm less convinced about the need to make this element so explicit, but that's down to my own personal taste.
The quality of the Booker long list seems to have become more erratic in recent years, but "The Luminaries" would not look out of place on the short list of even the vintage years. Definitely recommended. (I still think Harvest will win though).
I love long books and I am a longtime fan of Victorian novels, so I thought this would be right up my alley. It turned not to be the case at all. What I care about is a good story with lifelike characters. Unfortunately, those are exactly the two points where Ms. Catton's book is weakest.
Admirers of the book tend to be taken with its structure. For example, the New York Times review says "[I]t's not even a novel in the normal sense, but rather a mass confabulation that evaporates in front of us, an astrological divination waning like the moon, the first section 360 pages long (or are those degrees?), the last a mere sliver." My feet are too firmly planted on the ground, I guess, because I felt it added nothing at all to the story that the parts got shorter and shorter as the novel went on, and I could see little that the astrological references had to do with the plot.
This tale of the various residents, visitors and newcomers to a New Zealand gold-rush town in the 1860s is told in jumbled time fragments, with the last page taking us to the events immediately before the book's opening scene. I normally enjoy non-linear storytelling, but I found it a lot less enjoyable in this case because the characters were so flat and there was so much jumping around just for the sake of jumping, or at least I could see no other good reason for it. Worse yet, the author would suddenly lay out vast swaths of exposition, which to me, is a failure of storytelling.
The author is certainly clever in a Victorian sort of way. Her character names, for example; like Carver for a man with a large facial scar, Devlin for a clergyman, Mannering for a boor. She follows the Victorian style of giving a précis of each chapter's events at the top of each chapter. That was occasionally entertaining, but as the chapters became shorter and shorter, the précis became, instead, more exposition.
I could see occasional glimmers of a brilliant novel. If only Catton were more skilled in characterization and dropped some of the structural gimmickry in favor of telling the story through the characters, rather than so much omniscient narrator exposition, this could have been a story with broad appeal. As it is, though, I think it will have a far more narrow appeal.
on January 23, 2014
Was there an editor involved? For those who start this book and don't finish, don't worry. The beginning is the end, and the end comes at least 600 pages too late. Even after reading all of those pages it's still unclear to me who is dead, who might be dead but is walking around in an opium haze, and who is alive. And I don't care. I only kept going because I thought, being a Booker winner, something worthwhile would happen. When I finished I didn't think "Oh, what a great story", I thought "If someone recommends this book to me I will immediately disregard anything they ever say to me again."
Here's my takeaway - gold mining is terrible work, opium seem pleasant, a dress weighing over 5 pounds should be looked into and it rains a lot in New Zealand.
on January 5, 2014
That was a painful read. I put it down five times and read other books straight through, which is my usual pattern. But then I would come back, and hope it would get better -- it did win the Booker Prize. What were they thinking? The book was tedious and never seemed to go anywhere. How many descriptions of rain-soaked, sodden wool over coats, dripping on the furniture after slogging along the quay, does one book need, after all? From a little past the halfway point, it picked up slightly, but none of the characters ever really interested me, and the plot, if you want to call it that, just jumps around with no purpose, ending right where it began with a feeling of having been lead in pointless circles for a month, which is how long it took me to finally make it to the end. The predictable, uninspired ending that felt like a slap on my face when I reached the last page. Really? That's it? Tremendous waste of time, unless you are obsessed with descriptions of rain, and rain-soaked people, and walking in the rain, drying off after walking in the rain, sleeping in the rain, and anything rain, or weather related. Good luck..
on November 8, 2013
Wow, wow, wow! Beyond words.
That was my first impression upon reading The Luminaries. It's a mindful novel, vast in scope, steeped in thought.
At least for this reader, the time taken to read it slowly, with diversions to explore astrology sites to plumb the many allusions and the story's framework, all proved rewarding, not that I claim any great degree of mastery after a single passage through its pages.
But, it is understandable why it took a highly qualified Booker jury no more than two hours to sort through a most competitive field of nominated tomes to arrive at the consensus (no vote was needed) that the most deserving of the lot is The Luminaries. Each of the jury members read it thrice and was rewarded handsomely each time through. This puzzle of a book is well worth a reread.
As might be expected, professional reviewers split in their judgments. The majority, as best I can determine, deemed The Luminaries a wonder; with a minority not nearly so positive. Janet Maslin of the NYTimes even went so far as to trash it: "There are readers who will be fascinated by the structure and ambiguities of 'The Luminaries.' But by and large, it's a critic's nightmare."
I agree that this is no book to be read under deadline pressure, with the goal of arriving at some simplistic judgment on its worthiness.
In addition to a slow hand, it might be more illuminating (ha,ha) to approach Eleanor Catton's book in a way that accommodates the thought and art Eleanor Catton infuses in its pages. It is a book, I think, that most rewards readers who surrender their projections before opening the cover.
Catton employs several structural devices, the most important being the Golden Spiral, a geometric configuration frequently seen in galaxies. The spiral, a cousin to the gyre, expands by a factor of roughly 50% from the preceding spiral as it moves away from its source. Graphically, it's a tunnel effect.
Catton says her original application of the Golden Spiral would have resulted in 300,000 words. So, like many others who start out to employ the Golden Spiral, she modified the formula and came up with a 200,000 word tome.
The effect on the reader is a leisurely spiraling story for the first 360 pages, the essence of which is that a group of 12 residents of the gold town - the luminaries - are gathered in a hotel to shed light on a murder, a disappearance, and the provenance of a fortune in gold discovered in the murdered recluse's hut.
As the story spirals, the sections are reduced by half, and the pace quickens as the story enters the 12th and final section.
The second structure is a circle, which obviously manifests in the inner and outer circles of the astrology charts at the outset of each chapter, but also the ourouboros or snake/dragon figure from antiquity symbolizing a cycle of regeneration.
In one of many fascinating and poetic passages, Cotton examines not only how the houses of the Zodiac each contain qualities that relate them to neighboring houses on either side, but that the whole Zodiac is a story unto itself, which incidentally manifests in the novel's characters as they move through the various characters:
"What was glimpsed in Aquarius - what was envisioned, believed in, prophesied, predicted, doubted, and forewarned - is made, in Pisces, manifest. Those solitary visions that, but a month ago, belonged only to the dreamer, will now acquire the form and substance of the real. We were to our own making, and we shall be our own end."
The passage goes through the houses examining their influences on one another in describing the story of the Zodiac governing the story of The Luminaries, concluding with this:
"But the doubled fish of Pisces, that mirrored womb of self and self-awareness, is an ourobouros of the mind - both the will of fate, and the fated will - and the house of self-undoing is a prison built by prisoners, airless, doorless, and mortared from within."
The reader who takes the time to reflect on this passage gains the key to the story.
The end of The Luminaries is all about beginnings springing from the union of the male and female luminaries, in the convergence and divergence of the sun's direct light and the moon's reflected luminosity:
"Different beginnings? I think we must."
"Will there be more of them?"
"A great many more..."
This is a story set in circular space/time, an eternity without beginning or end. There is no inherent distinction between the three times, past, present, and future.
Enough about the structure that is causing such a buzz, and I think discomfort to those reading The Luminaries under deadline pressure and readers more comfortable with a more linear story.
The more traditional linear action of the book is easily described. It answers these questions: Who killed the recluse? Where did the prodigal son get to? What is the provenance of the gold treasure that so many lay claim to?
The answers are sifted like gold by a cast of approximately 20 characters in the spiraling course of the story with no beginning and no end. (Interesting to note that the movement of panning for gold is at once circular, but also requires tilting of the pan so that the circular motion resembles a spiral to tease out the gold.)
The characters - including the 12 luminaries each aligned with a house in the Zodiac - are deeply drawn psychologically in the first 360 pages. The astuteness of the psychology, based on the story of the Zodiac, itself is otherworldly. The defining qualities of each character as well as the recessive counter qualities all come into play under various conditions (including convergence with others manifesting complementary or opposing qualities).
The discerning reader will come to see that the qualities manifest in these characters mirror people and relations we face in our lives. The play between these qualities and their manifest characters explain how the most hardened and mercenary character can show compassion to someone he has victimized such as when the capitalist Mannering in one instance is threatening the Chinaman digger Ah Quee with a pistol, and soon thereafter shows the same man compassion in saving him from a beating being administered by thugs who have been set in motion by the primary law authority in town.
The characters are drawn with great humanity and compassion, which allows them not to appear as ideas with arms and legs as they might if sketched by a lesser talent than Catton. The cast itself creates a community with all of its functioning parts that itself evolves as a character, with many balances not the least of which is the convergence of goldfield law, and the more established codes of civilization's law.
I've gone on at too great a length. For that I apologize. But like the many professional critics who have taken a run at this wonderful book, I have yet to scratch its surface.
About the author: In addition to doing some research on astrology and the Zodiac, I culled interviews - written and audio - of Eleanor Catton. Normally, I pretty much leave the author out of any book's consideration (how do you factor into Billy Faulkner's works his diddling 17 year old girls...don't answer, please).
But in this exceptional case, it's well worth the time to pore through the interviews. As one might expect, The Luminaries springs from the finest kind of creative mind, and she is guileless enough to field every question asked of her and answer intelligently.
As a former newspaper reporter, I have never seen anyone so accomplished in an interview, and she's doing it without talking points. Her sure-footed answers are offered graciously and without hesitation.
As she matures, you might not be offered such an unobstructed glimpse into that fine mind.
on December 1, 2014
Sad little book; sadder still are all of the accolades. There is not a literary stereotype left unexplored - the thin hooker with the heart of gold; the crass, heartless madam; the ruthless, self-righteous predjudiced lawman; the young hero who sees the reality beyond "the oldest profession." The literary devices are so plentiful they interfere with the suspension of disbelief in the story line, which starts with a group of men together in a bar, and then "recounts the history" for them using a third person narration. Most of all, the story is soul-less. Other than wanting to get that poor starved hooker something to eat, I could care less about these one dimensional characters in their muddy gold-slinging town. Far too clever by half. To all those in these reviews who talk about attaining the slog through the 800 pages as if to achieve literary Nirvana - PUL-EASE. This novel could be summarized in a tweet (if a long one)-#OldWestHookerGetsHerMan.
This novel is about as "Finely Wrought" (Washington Post) as your average Bonanza episode. Here's what I consider, as a reader, to be "finely wrought" - when I've completed the novel, I've learned something about life. I've cared deeply about a character, suffered and / or laughed with them, or both. I've been on an emotional journey and I'm somehow the wiser or touched to the heart by that journey. This collection of characters clearly outlined in some notebook, busy as bees in their meaningless literary contrivances with their flat pancake character development and their one dimensionality - just sad. Award winning? Not in my book.
on March 18, 2014
I congratulate those who gave up on this book before reaching the end: they were much smarter than I, since I slogged, plodded, and dragged myself through all 800+ boring pages. The plot was convoluted, incomprehensible, needlessly hard to follow, and unengaging. I could not care about any of the characters; much of the time I couldn't even keep them straight. The astrological nonsense added nothing except another level of pretension. Like many who love to read, when I finish a good book, I feel sad that it's over. With this book, the complete opposite: I've never been so thrilled to be done with a book in my life!