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Eleanor Catton, The luminaries (Review)

January 31, 2014
Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Now here’s the thing … I don’t make a practice of reading mysteries. I really don’t care about who dunnit. When Mr Gums and I watch television crime shows, I rarely concentrate enough to work out the plot intricacies, but I do watch the characters. I’m always interested in the detectives and their relationships. I want to know who they are and what makes them tick. And so, I must say that I got a little tired of the plot machinations in Eleanor Catton’s Booker prize-winning novel, The luminaries. I didn’t really want to expend effort to keep track of the complexities of whose gold went where, who told whom what, and so on. But, I did find the book an interesting read, nonetheless.

Why? Well, first and foremost because of the characters. In the first half of the novel, as the characters were being introduced, I was impressed by Catton’s understanding of human nature.  Her characters, most of them anyhow, are nuanced – if that’s not too clichéd a term. Here for example is Thomas Balfour:

When a restless spirit is commissioned, under influence, to solve a riddle for another man, his energies are, at first, readily and faithfully applied. But Thomas Balfour’s energies tended to span a very short duration, if the project to which he was assigned was not a project of his own devising. His imagination gave way to impatience, and his optimism to an extravagant breed of neglect. He seized an idea only to discard it immediately, if only for the reason that it was no longer novel to him; he started in all directions at once. This was not at all the mark of a fickle temper, but rather, of a temper that is accustomed to enthusiasm of the most genuine and curious sort, and so will accept no form of counterfeit – but it was nevertheless, something of an impediment to progress.

This made me laugh. Not all descriptions did of course, but most are insightful of humanity.

There is also humour in the book – some funny scenes, and wry asides. Since we’re on Thomas Balfour, let’s stay with him. Here he is meeting the chaplain Cowell Devlin:

‘Good morning’, returned the reverend man, and from his accent Balfour knew at once that he was Irish; he relaxed, and allowed himself to be rude.

Thomas, as you might have guessed, is English – and this of course tells us more about him than about Devlin.

Perhaps at this point I should mention the plot, though as a Booker Prize Winner, its basic premise is probably known to most of you. The novel is set in the New Zealand goldfields, Hokitika mainly, over 1865 to 1866. The plot concerns the death of one man, the disappearance of another, an apparent suicide attempt, and the provenance of a gold fortune. There are 20 main characters – 12 described as stellar, representing the 12 astrological star signs; 7 described as planetary, representing, of course, the planets; and one, the dead man, described as terra firma. It’s a lot to keep in your head but Catton does provide a character chart at the front to help.

There is a lot to enjoy while reading this book, in addition to the characterisation and humour. The plot is intricate and fun to unravel if you enjoy mysteries. The goldfields setting is realistic, with its businessmen, publicans, politicians, prospectors, whores, opium dealers and tricksters, not to mention the salting and the duffers. The writing is sure. I enjoyed her use of imagery. Grey and yellow feature throughout as do references to spirits (ethereal, emotional, and alcoholic), ghosts, apparitions, phantoms, fog and mist. These all helped convey a sense of murkiness, and of things shifting before our eyes.

The main themes are to do with truth, lies and fraud, with love, loyalty and betrayal. It’s quite a cynical world that our characters find themselves in. As the not-yet dead man, Crosbie Wells, says to the whore, Anna Wetherell:

There’s no charity in a gold town. If it looks like charity, look again.

There is, of course, but it’s rare – and, as Wells advises, you have to be darned careful about who you trust, because, human nature being what it is, where there’s gold, there’s always greed.

The big challenge of this novel is its structure. I’ve already mentioned the structure of the characters. The astrological theme is carried through into the structure of the narrative. The book is divided into 12 parts which, I learnt at my reading group, are meant to align with the lunar cycle, each part being exactly half the length of the previous part. This didn’t feel artificial, because the increasingly shorter parts provided a rhythm to the unravelling of the plot. The other point to make about the structure is that the novel commences on 27 January 1866, 13 days after 14 January when the critical plot events take place. The novel then moves forward, through the trial and its aftermath, to 27 April 1866 (Part 4). In this part, we also jump back, in alternating chapters, to 27 April 1865, when the major players in the plot start, shall we say, “orbiting” each other, if not downright colliding. The novel then progresses forward again, ending on 14 January 1866, not quite back at the beginning, but on the day that precipitates the narrative.

There is, then, a certain circularity to it all, but what does it mean? Does this structure do anything for we readers? I’m not sure. There are intricate astrological charts at the beginning of each part showing where the 12 characters are positioned, astronomically speaking, on that date. I don’t have the astrological knowledge to know whether these charts added meaning or not. The circularity does, however, suggest another potential theme – which is, as chaplain Devlin says, that:

Some things are never done.

Devlin says something else too, which is reinforced by the way the narrative progresses via the stories of the various players:

never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view.

So, in the end, where did it all leave me? Wondering, in fact, whether it was just a little too clever for itself or, maybe, too clever for me. Either way, I did enjoy the read, and was impressed by the skill with which Catton executed her tale and the insight she has into human nature. Beyond that, I think it’s best if you decide for yourselves.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) wasn’t enamoured, nor was the Resident Judge, but John (Musings of a Literary Dilettante) liked it very much.

Eleanor Catton
The luminaries
London: Granta, 2013
832pp.
ISBN: 9781847088765

36 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2014 1:13 am

    I do plan to read this. I thought you brought the themes and symbols out nicely, but my impression was that while you enjoyed it you didn’t love it. Is that fair?

    • January 31, 2014 8:09 am

      Oh, good Max … You got exactly how I felt. I look forward to seeing your review one day.

  2. January 31, 2014 2:24 am

    I loved it! I didn’t quite get some of the astrological complexities although I knew they were important and I’ll be happily rereading it later this year (already scheduled with a group).

    You wrote a great review covering the elements I love in Catton’s book – the structure and the characters. But her writing was so nice to read.

    • January 31, 2014 8:14 am

      Her writing was good to read, Bekah … I didn’t love it. Something fell flat – so I didn’t come away feeling WOW – I think it’s because I love big themes and while they were there they didn’t seem to be her driver so in the end I was wondering what it was really about and I can’t help thinking it was the structure that drove it, but for me ‘d like it to be the other way.

      • January 31, 2014 11:57 am

        True enough that Catton’s writing in this book wasn’t exactly to die for, but considering the complexity of the structure, themes and plot line I personally think that might have been a bit distracting. This was more of a plot-driven book than theme driven – John Banville as Benjamin Black does that – his prose weighs down the mystery, although I think he’s getting better about that.

        I sometimes get tired of theme-driven books, fwiw, although I do enjoy them – I feel like too many seem to have the same themes. (I may be reading the wrong books, though. – heh)

        • January 31, 2014 2:54 pm

          Oh sorry, Bekah, when I said “I didn’t love it” I meant the book, not the writing! I thought the writing was great. I tend to prefer theme or character driven books to plot-driven books. Plots bore me really – if that makes sense. It’s why I can read Austen again and again and again. I read for the language, and the characters and, most of all, her observations of humanity. Every time I read her I see something new because my experience of the world has moved on, I think.

  3. January 31, 2014 4:43 am

    Hmm. I’m not a who dunnit reader either, so, knowing what you know now about the book, if you went back in time would you happily pick up the book to read? It seems readers of the book either love it or find it disappointing and since it is such a big book I am trying figure out which camp I am likely to end up in!

    • January 31, 2014 8:16 am

      I’m glad I read it, Stefanie, despite the time it took, for two reasons – her writing is great to read despite my other reservations, and I like to read the Booker winners. Not because I believe they are the final arbiter of quality but because they are usually books which garner discussion and I like to know what people are talking about!

  4. January 31, 2014 6:27 am

    There’s something about this book that puts me off but I’m not sure why. I’ve read quite mixed reviews and I almost find myself looking for reasons to not start it! Which is mad really! It sits on a pile by my desk and I’ve actually tripped over it as often as I have picked it up to ponder starting it. But your review hits the nail on the head – I just have to try it and decide for myself!!!

    • January 31, 2014 8:22 am

      You do Col! I understand your reticence. It is very long … But I don’t subscribe to the it wasted my time camp. It’s a good read that, given all the buzz, makes you think. Why the buzz? Do I agree that it’s a “novel novel” as I’ve heard a Booker judge has said? What do I look for in a great novel? What is it about?

  5. ablay1 permalink
    January 31, 2014 7:19 am

    A very fair and comprehensive review, Sue. Like you, I enjoy character development in a novel, but found the multiple characters, though well described, fairly static. And in the end I just didn’t care enough about any of them. But Catton’s writing is faultless and a pleasure to read.

    • January 31, 2014 8:25 am

      Interesting Anna. I did care about the two characters on whom the book ends. Do you mean “static” as in not develop? Anyhow, I agree that her writing is lovely to read. I got bored with the plot, but never with her writing, which sounds weird doesn’t it?

  6. January 31, 2014 7:50 am

    That’s ‘way too structured for me: I actually get irritated when I feel the writer has drawn up the plot on an Excel spreadsheet … I think I really like just to be entertained; which is why your difficult Oz writers make me shy away. ‘Voss’? – gimme a break! We did that in Eng I at Monash, and I detested it because I simply couldn’t follow it. Too lazy, and that’s the truth. But you sure have a talent for reviewing: I can’t do that! I just love it or don’t. 😐

    • January 31, 2014 7:50 am

      P.S. (sorry!) I ADORED ‘Mr Gums’!

    • January 31, 2014 8:28 am

      We’re cut of different cloths MR! And I love reading you and your blog for that! I did Voss in my last year of high school … Loved it so much I went out and bought his short stories. I think Voss appealed to my romantic but melancholic teenage girl nature.

  7. January 31, 2014 9:52 pm

    I’m also an absolute Voss fan – don’t touch my Voss! I reread it recently and like Jane Austen (though differently of course) there is so much character study to enjoy. A lot of it is hilarious.
    I was curious to read what you read about Catton’s book – firstly because I read Lisa’s review the other week which was very bold. I’m not really drawn to whodunnits either. Or tricky plots. I do enjoy a good journey and this seems like a very successful book.

    Gosh I’ve been away and must catch up with your posts – I left off at the ‘difficult books’ one which gave much food for thought.

    • January 31, 2014 10:05 pm

      Ah Voss … I’m hoping to read it again soon, Catherine, but whether hoping will turn into action, who knows. Yes, Lisa was very bold – there are others who agree with her. I really don’t see it as hollow, but I felt the intricacies of the plot and structure got in the way a bit, for me.

  8. February 1, 2014 5:56 am

    Very nice review – it’s good to read your thoughts on this one. I generally don’t care whodunnit either! I didn’t realise this was such a plot-driven book. I think for a Booker winner I’d expect to see some of the big, well-developed themes that seem to be lacking. I might still read it – like you, I like to know what people are talking about. But I’m not in a big rush… Hope you’re well!

    • February 1, 2014 6:23 am

      Nice to hear from you Andrew – hope you are well too. No, I hadn’t realised it was such a plot-driven book either but it’s such an interesting book that it’s worth reading, if you can, to be part of the conversation. There are so many different thoughts out there. I’m not seeing a lot of discussion of the big themes, though some are mentioned. It is long however!

  9. February 1, 2014 8:41 am

    Thanks for this review, WG. I’m so interested in responses to this book because I was disappointed when I read it, probably mostly because it was the Booker winner and I still had Hilary Mantel hovering gloriously in the background. I really wanted to like this book. I agree about the great insight into character, but I wanted to see it in action and not be told about it. I was irritated that before I could see a character, there were two or three paragraphs telling me what he was like; I understand the nineteenth-century reference here, but I don’t see the point. And in the end, I think, the clever structure and ironically, even the faultless writing, left me feeling cold, left outside, somehow.

    • February 1, 2014 9:23 am

      Thanks Robyn … I have just drafted a follow-up post on the book in which I specifically say I like the setting up of the characters! That’s one of my favourite parts of the book! I think a lot of people felt cold. I didn’t quite feel that, but it didn’t feel a buzz either. I’m still processing! I think it’s probably a hard book to appreciate in one read and yet finding the time for another read would be difficult, n’est-ce pas?

      • February 1, 2014 12:05 pm

        Ah well, each to his own, I suppose! I find I phase out if a character description runs on too long without him / her doing or saying something. I agree, though, that I’m still processing and no time to read again. I did, however, read Harvest by Jim Crace, because lots of people said he should win, but mostly because it was about a medieval village and just in my area of interest. Now that was a treat! The sort of writing you could cut up and eat for dinner! I’m now putting his other books on my to-read list.

        • February 1, 2014 1:30 pm

          Just as well we are different in what we like, really, given that writers are different in what they like to write!

          As for Harvest, I’d love to find time to read that. Besides Jane Austen’s novels and a few other classics, there aren’t a lot of books I’ve read more than once. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one, as is Willa Cather’s My Antonia, but another is Jim Crace’s Being dead. (I’m pretty sure I have a review of my second read on the blog). I loved it. His writing is wonderful, and I’ve always meant to read more but haven’t yet managed it. Why is he not better known over here? I mean he’s known, but not as well as say McEwan.

  10. February 1, 2014 1:40 pm

    I am interested in this book, but now both you and Lisa were somewhat underwhelmed…. There is so much I really want to read, and many authors who can tell their story in under 832 pages- which I think is a very sensible and reasonable thing to do. I’m not sure that I’ll get to it, or get to it anytime soon, but it’s interesting to see your thoughts. I do like a whodunnit, although I’m not reading all that many of them at the moment.

    • February 1, 2014 1:49 pm

      I understand your uncertainty Louise. While there are those who feel reading it is a waste of their time, I don’t agree. It’s a book that bears thinking about and I’m enjoying being part of the conversation. But, you do need to be able to read it within a reasonable time-frame, I think, to keep on top of it!

  11. Angela Meyer (LiteraryMinded) permalink
    February 2, 2014 3:15 pm

    I enjoyed your review, Sue, and cheers for coming back to my blog to engage me. I think I liked it slightly more than you. I found it riveting (I think I am quite plot-driven at times), and I agree about the imagery. But as you know, I was left with a few qs at the end and a feeling of ‘is this how it’s meant to be read’? But my admiration for it is strong, and one day I would like to read it again.

    • February 2, 2014 4:13 pm

      Thanks Angela. I’m actually drafting another post. I did enjoy the read but am still trying to work it out in my mind. (BTW, got the book last week, will try to read it soon – am itching to get to it).

  12. acommonreaderuk permalink
    February 3, 2014 6:28 am

    Fascinating – I do like mysteries and this looks rather different than most. I shall now go an read you follow-up post

  13. February 4, 2014 8:15 am

    Considering the length of this, and the shortness of time I have, I’ve resolved to just read interesting and informative reviews like yours. You know I even had put a hold on the book from our public library and even had it in my hands after a long while, but chose to return it to the library. Thanks for sharing this WG. 😉

    • February 4, 2014 8:36 am

      Fair enough Arti … You can become very erudite about it, second-handedly. Perhaps you could write a Review of reviews, or, why I chose not to read The luminaries!

  14. February 7, 2014 5:48 pm

    I felt a similar reaction when I read A Tale for the Time Being – a bit too clever, but lacking some heart. It looks like this is a very similar sort of book in style.

    I do like long descriptive headings, and Victorian-style character descriptions, and I enjoy mysteries. So, I should definitely pick this one up. I think I”ll prefer it to A Tale for…

    • February 7, 2014 6:09 pm

      Welcome Nish. Thanks for joining in the conversation. I don’t know A tale for time being. I think there is some heart to this, but I don’t think it comes through as strongly as it could. Does that make sense? If you like mysteries and don’t mind committing to a long read, I’d give this a go, particularly because it won the Booker and is being talked about.

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  1. ‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip
  2. I’ve just spent 4 working days listening to one book, | theaustralianlegend

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