Monday, 3 February 2014

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: Deserving of the Man Booker, Not My Book of the Year

It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky. Goodreads summary of The Luminaries.

The Luminaries praise and criticism
The Luminaries: a great achievement but not
quite my book of the year. Image source.
Some time ago, I read a superb article by Eleanor Catton in The Guardian. She wrote about New Zealand and the differences between North and South Island, and I tried my hardest to absorb the writing and the awe-inspiring scenery she described. There would absolutely be no skim reading here, I thought.

This article was the primary reason why I wanted to read The Luminaries. I wasn't particularly interested in reading it just to say I've read the Man Booker winner - an eight-hundred page one at that - and tick it off my reading list, but rather I wanted to see what Catton was capable of.

I was given the hefty hardback edition of The Luminaries for Christmas, and in a few days I had got through a considerable chunk of the book. I was enjoying it, despite the slow start that other reviewers have touched upon, but as the book progressed I realised I wasn't going to give it five stars.

Why The Luminaries deserves the Man Booker

  • The Luminaries is a remarkable story of society and its intertwining classes, cultures and collective and individual aspirations. Memorable characters include Emery Staines and the Maori character Te Rau Tauwhare, who weaves through the lives of characters and draws them towards reflection.
  • Catton's writing gave me an authentic impression of the era, and you can tell she's spent a good deal of time researching and emulating Victorian writers.
  • I've never read anything like it before, and I wouldn't dream of calling the novel unoriginal. If anything, I'd perhaps compare it to Patrick Hamilton's Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, with an echo of Dickens's Great Expectations and some Wilkie Collins.

Why it's not going to be my book of the year

  • I wanted to know more about the characters, particularly Walter Moody (the protagonist who brings the reader into Hokitika). As the characters came close to showing their true selves, they seemed to flee just as quickly.
  • When I finish a favourite book, I want to savour the hopes and dreams of characters I relate to or aspire to be like. Even years after first reading them, I'll be imagining the sublime landscapes or well-written scenes of great novels. My favourite books forge memories that warm my heart and bring me right back into the story. Why did The Luminaries not leave me with fond memories? Why didn't it strike a chord with me?
  • This may be due to my own insufficiencies, but I didn't completely understand the astrological framing device or what it added to the story. Should I revisit the novel and pay more attention to this, perhaps?

While The Luminaries is an incredible feat, and Catton is wonderfully suited to being at the forefront of female writing, it wasn't perfect. It could have been a five-star read, but there was nothing that I particularly loved about it or found exceptional. I'm very excited about what Catton will go on to write, and I'm keen to read her first novel. This just wasn't the one for me.

Have you read The Luminaries? Did you find it flawless or, like me, did you find it slightly lacking? Would you recommend that I read it again?

Relaxing with The Luminaries and wine
Reading The Luminaries with some wine - why not?


Alison Clayton-Smith said...

I wonder how many prize winning novels have been universally loved. Or because judging is always going to be subjective, is there always going to be people who don't rate such a novel so highly?

Have to admit, the comments I've seen about length and complexity of the book have been putting me off reading it.

bellezza said...

yeah, I didn't get the astrological signs either, other than a way to frame the book. I know what you mean about the characters being a bit "flat" (not your word, just that I couldn't engage with them as closely as I would have liked).

I loved the complexity. I loved the tightly interwoven plot where no one's word could be accepted as truth. I marvel at how she tied it all together.

Not sure if it will be in my top ten for the year, but I am glad I read it. I do think it deserved a prize.

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Lee-Anne, I hope you're well!

It was a well-crafted novel, but indeed a very long one. i think it would have been easier for me to get through had there been less emotional distance, but I can't criticise the author on her literary talent. I can also understand why there have been so many positive reviews, but for me the breadth and complexity of the novel wasn't really enough. It's definitely time for a few shorter books now!

I hope you enjoyed the Guardian article :)

Best wishes as always,

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Alison, I can't think of many universally loved novels, let alone prize winning ones! I agree that judging is always highly subjective, so I try not to approach an award-winner expecting it to be the incredible, landmark text that it's claimed to be.

I think Luminaries deserves the Booker Prize for its complexity and high degree of crafting, and I imagine this was probably why it got it. For me I just gravitate more towards novels that I can attach to emotionally, particularly at the moment for some reason, and Luminaries wasn't the best contender for this.

It was by no means a bad book though! I'm tempted to revisit it when I'm in a better state of mind to take it all in, or at least keep an eye on what Catton writes next.

Thanks for your comment!

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Belleza, I hope you're well!

I did think the astrological theme was a very clever way to frame the book but... perhaps it could have been worked on more, or used in a clearer way? I think 'flat' is probably the right word to use. The characters were fascinating, or had the potential to be, but they just seemed to be so far away, which was a shame for me.

But yes, it definitely is a novel to marvel at, and the skill and effort that must have gone into crafting it is incredible. I'm glad I read it too, and the Man Booker judges chose well!

Elena said...

I loved it and I don't usually sit so content and intrigued thoughout 894 pages. But then again, is The Luminaries one of those crime novels that I love? :P

tolstoytherapy said...

So glad you enjoyed it - I'm very tempted to give it another go! Perhaps next summer.

But I do know about your love for crime novels ;)