Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

by Jamie Klingler

By LBC regular George, who blogs at George Berridge where this post was originally published. Reproduced here with George’s permission.

I missed out on last month’s read (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) because of work, but I was pretty thrilled to see that our read for April was the 2013 Man Booker prize winner, Eleanor Catton’s 800+ page behemoth, The Luminaries.

Prior to starting, I’d read all but two of the MB shortlist (The Luminaries and We Need New Names) and so from the off I thought Catton had some serious work to do – the competition was very strong. While I thought The Lowlands and Harvest were good, though not particularly captivating, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being was magnificent and Colm Tóibín’s Testament of Mary remains one of the most heart-breaking and beautiful things I’ve ever read.

I can report, now, that Catton’s place on the podium (which I assume they have at the award ceremony else what’s really the point?) is completely deserved. The Luminaries is, on reflection, a staggering piece of work and a huge achievement for a number of reasons.

I won’t give too much of the plot away, but all that is essential for you to know is that the plot takes place in New Zealand during the gold rush of the mid-1800s. It’s initially set up like an episode of Midsomer. A young prospective prospector, Walter Moody, lands in a costal town to seek his fortune and to escape from a familial breakdown. On stepping ashore he comes across a Masonesque meeting of 12 men who are gathered to piece together a series of events involving the attempted suicide (or so the allegation stands) of a whore, the death of one man and the disappearance of another, and the origins and future of a large fortune.

Though it’s a somewhat slapdash comparison, Eco’s The Name of the Rose springs to mind when describing The Luminaries. Not that the plot or characters are similar, but that Catton has clearly put a vast amount of work into the structure and symbolism within the text. The Luminaries doesn’t follow a typical chapter progression style; the book is divided into parts, each half as long as the one prior (the first part is ~half of the book). The book revolves(!) heavily around the use of astrology – the dramatis personæ feature 12 “stellar” or Zodiac characters, and 7 “planetary” or Earth characters. I was told this before turning to page 1 and I am ashamed to admit that I believed I would already dislike the book, what with it being based on what seemed like a gimmick.

I was wrong, reader.

Instead of seeming forced or overly-academic (there is nothing worse in literature than a book that screams “LOOK HOW CLEVER I AM!”), the whole thing brings a fairly standard murder-mystery and gives it a Mariana Trench-like depth. Of course, you could read it and enjoy it perfectly well without this: it’s a great story. But with a little reading of basic astrology, my appreciation for the book increased exponentially.

While the characters certainly feel well-crafted, I can’t help but deal with a nagging sense that some didn’t get the coverage they deserved to make them whole – I won’t go so far as to say I feel cheated by this, but it did feel like a bit of a shortcoming.

Viewed as a whole, retrospectively,  what Catton has achieved is astonishing. As I mentioned at our discussion, one of my 4am showerthoughts was as follows:

When you’re young (or just older and clumsy) there’ll be a time when you break a vase or bowl or something similar of not insignificant worth.

Now, faced with the pieces, it’d be easy to say “well, that’s gone…” and sweep it into the bin. But consider the prospect of piecing the thing back together. Initially it seems pointless and dull, working out what goes where. But when the first big pieces and the bases slot together and the glue sets, you see something good begin to form out of the debris. You keep at it until you’re down to all but shards and splinters. When those final fractured bits of porcelain come together and you look at it as a whole, only then do you come to appreciate it for what it is.

That, to me, is The Luminaries in as small a nutshell as I can find.

There was some heated discussion over whether the books was worthy of the MB. Some questioned whether it won because of who Catton is, or because it’s academic (a critic’s book), forced, or whatever. But I don’t buy that for a second. Catton won because as a young novelist, she dared to try something ambitious and pulled it off.  If prizes refuse to consider books like The Luminaries as more than just text – by excluding their context – they’re not worth the glass they’re made of.