The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton


The Luminaries found its way onto the Booker long or shortlist in 2013 – can anyone help me here? – I feel I’ve spent long enough on this novel already.

Well – take a breath – it’s quite a read.  My wife put it down at round about page 600, but I’m made of sterner stuff I’m afraid!  I just got to the end this morning.  My beard was a little long, there were flecks of dandruff on my pyjamas and I looked up to find said wife flicking the dust off the rims of my specs.  It took a while – but I did finish it.

Eleanor Catton is clearly much cleverer than me – and cleverer than lots of her readers at a guess – she not only understood the plot, she invented it.

The Luminaries is essentially a Victorian novel – long and winding – verbose you might say.  As you would expect from the genre, each chapter is prefaced by a brief and microscopic summary; by the end these “summaries” aren’t summaries at all, and they’re not too brief either.  In the last section at least they tell the story, and Catton merely plucks out a related event or incident from that story to flesh out in the chapter itself.  I’m afraid I didn’t notice when she began to take that approach, and I didn’t look back to find out, so if I missed something – well who cares?

Catton is a skilful writer who imitates the Victorian voice well in the language of the narrator and of the characters.  It’s a novel built round dialogue, and some of that is quite interesting.  The plot has all the elements of the Victorian melodrama – a sort of Wilkie Collins novel involving opium and riches and foreign lands and travel and the exploitation of women, and a shady but typical Victorian racism is embodied in the characters’ attitudes to the Chinese labourers in the gold fields.  The villains are scarred brutes and duplicitous women.  The hero is fair in both appearance and action.

By the end I have to say I was none the wiser. It all seemed much ado about nothing.  A spoiler here – I looked up on Google – Who killed Francis Carver?  Our friendly internet search engine threw up the following link:

115 Journals – Deconstructing the Luminaries – a Timeline

It was like stumbling into a nether world, a strange opium dream of the book’s own making.  There are people here seriously struggling to fathom out what happened – there’s a long list of comments and contributions.  Some people are reading the novel for the third time!!!!

So that’s it.  The book’s obviously compelling if you like that sort of long rambling tale – an armchair by a warm fire, the long winter nights, snow outside – you curl up and enjoy yourself.  For me – well not really my cup of tea to be honest.

I always stick a link to a professional review at the end of mine – just so you can check. People rarely do, but in this case I really advise it: Kirsty Gunn gives an eloquent and generous appraisal.

The Guardian Review


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