Book review: The Luminaries (2013)

The Luminaries is the Man Booker prize-winning book by Eleanor Catton. The novel is set in New Zealand during the 1860s gold rush. Catton uses astrology to structure the story, which is divided into twelve sections, each representing the twelve signs on the zodiac. Each of the twelve main characters features in the chapter that represents his sign. The book is a cross between a modern whodunit and a sweeping historical novel.

The good

Catton uses language to transport us to the Victorian gold rush in New Zealand. The language is beautiful and crisp. Her descriptions of people and places feel authentically Victorian and are not excessively expository. Her dialogues have a beautiful rhythm. That rhythm pulls us in; we turn the (virtual) pages quickly. We want to solve the mystery.

We quickly become attached to the characters. The challenge is that we have so many characters to choose from. If you read the Kindle e-book, take advantage of the x-ray feature to refresh your memory about some of the characters’ backgrounds, connections, and motivations.

Some readers give up on this book too early. The second half moves more quickly than the first. The courthouse scene is a can’t-miss narrative that reads more like John Grisham than Charles Dickens.

The bad

Many critics have hailed The Luminaries as a ground-breaking reinvention of the Victorian novel, primarily due to its unique astrological structure. We can see the painstaking effort Catton took in creating characters that align with common notions about astrological signs. We can also see her craft the plot to align with those notions. However, in the end, we ask if it’s all too much effort for too little reward to the reader. If the structure is divided into the twelve zodiac signs, then those sections should be relatively equal in length, just as the signs themselves are. Yet, we spend an extraordinarily long time in the first house and precious little time in the last. Why? What’s the rush? Ultimately, the ending, while beautiful, is unsatisfying.

For most readers, the novel’s length, at a whopping 834 pages, is a turn-off. Let’s face it. Modern readers lack the stamina and attention span to stick with a novel that long. We prefer to have our literature delivered in smaller bytes (pun intended). That’s why many have predicted the death of the modern novel. Even though I enjoyed this book, I did find myself asking around page 600, “Are we there yet?” Perhaps that’s a statement about my attention span, but even someone with my love for details can grown impatient with the plot that seems to stretch longer than necessary at times.

The Kindle e-book has a serious flaw: the recto headers, indicating the dates, are lost in the e-book conversion.

The verdict

Much like a gold claim that seems like a potential duffer, The Luminaries by @EleanorCatton rewards those readers who mine its riches.

[usr 4.0]

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