The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

Book Reviews, Recommended

The Luminaries

This was a fascinating book. It had been hovering on the edges of my conscious asking to be read so when I was going to visit friends in Frankfurt for a few days I decided to order it for a little fun, light reading. When the book arrived it was bigger than my head, but I took it anyway. And was very glad I did.

The story begins with the entrance of Walter Moody to a roomful of twelve men of varied character, who are pretending to not be gathered for any purpose at all. The setting is a New Zealand Gold rush town, and it transpires that all of them are connected to a curious sequence of events that included lost gold, the death of a man, the disappearance of another and the apparent suicide of a prostitute.

The first, and long, section of the book narrates from all the different perspectives how these gentlemen are involved; then goes on to what happens next, and eventually back into the past as the details and facts build themselves into a full picture. It is this structure of the book that perhaps fascinates me the most. It seems less like a sequential order of events, and more like a gradual zooming into the detail – with people and ideas getting clearer all the time.

It feels as though we are not being particularly directed by the storyteller – even though in the chapter summaries and in the text a few times she (or he – merely an assumption as the author is female) addresses the reader. It has more the feel of a collation than a story. This allows you to feel as though you are piecing together the mystery which is fun, but means that towards the end the chapter summaries become a bit overbearing in their attempt to steer the plot.

These were used well, largely, but I have an inherent dislike of being told what to expect, think and deduce; and of being forced out of the story to analyse and preempt it at the beginning of a chapter. This was probably the best use of them I have seen, but it still largely grated on me.

Another problem is confusion! A girl I met on the plane said that she had got totally lost halfway through the book – and I can easily see how that would happen. Going between twelve characters, all of whom’s characters are dissected in fairly interesting detail, gets confusing, and I found myself skimming over and deciding it couldn’t matter too much if this man was the chemist or the solicitor or the clerk.

The treatment of women is interesting to mention. Anna, the prostitute, is treated with variations of love and respect by most members of the town, and though she has been forced by the formidable (and only other female) Mrs Wells into her current state is not particularly blamed for it, which is evidently a good thing. But her character does not seem consistent, and when her backstory finally comes properly into play for me it did not quite seem to ring true – or at least, not to quite explain it enough. Plus, it is a book with many deeply described male characters and two female, who we understand far less. This is, of course, historically accurate, but interesting coming from a female writer.

But the world created is compelling, and the mystery, if not page-turningly gripping, is certainly fascinating as the different angles come into play and plots and characters circle each other. I think it is a masterpiece and a marvel, and will certainly recommend it. For a few days after I could not shake it from me but kept returning in my thoughts and making me miss that world. And for me, that is usually the sign of a very good book.

And so I try to put aside my jealousy at her achievement, learn from her excellent use of a very large amount of backstory, and move on. I will certainly be looking for her other novel too! Thanks, Eleanor Catton.


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