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Delicious descriptions: More on Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

February 2, 2014

Rightly or wrongly, I try to keep my reviews to a reasonable length. When they start creeping up to 1200 words, I worry that readers will be discouraged from reading. There’s so much to read out there – so many books, so many blogs, so many articles. And so, when my review of The luminaries started to close in on 1100 words, I decided that it was time to stop. There’s always my Delicious Descriptions series I thought …

So here I am. I’m going to introduce my follow-up with another character description, this time of the young banker:

Charlie Frost was no great observer of human nature, and as a consequence, felt betrayed by others very frequently. The air of cryptic strategy with which he often spoke was not manufactured, though he was entirely sensible of its effects; it came, rather, out of a fundamental blindness to all experience exterior to his own. Frost did not know how to listen to himself as if he were somebody else; he did not know how to see the world from another man’s eyes; he did not know how to contemplate another man’s nature, except to compare it, either enviously or pitiably, to his own. He was a private hedonist, perennially wrapped up in the cocoon of his own senses, mindful, always, of the things he already possessed, and the things he had yet to gain; his subjectivity was comprehensive, and complete.

An important aspect of the novel I omitted in my review was its relationship to the 19th century Victorian novel. I just couldn’t do it justice in a few words … Since writing my review, I’ve been roaming around blogs and reviews, reading various responses. I’m finding a fascinating array of ideas: it’s rich, it’s hollow, it’s tedious, it’s exciting, it’s innovative … and so on. Many discuss this 19th century novel aspect – and one of the issues raised is Catton’s characterisation. Some suggest, as I have too in other reviews, that the novelist should show not tell. They argue that Catton’s character descriptions, such as the one above, do too much telling. They don’t like it. I don’t see it that way, though. For me, it’s a matter of what you show and what you tell. No amount of her “showing” me Charlie Frost would result in my being able to describe his character the way she has here. I’m more than happy to read such delicious descriptions as this, and then watch the character acting it out.

Catton also invokes other stylistic features of the Victorian novel – the coincidences, the red herrings, the mixed identities, the large cast of characters, the gritty realism, and the omniscient and sometimes intrusive narrator. Is Catton being anachronistic or has she offered a fresh take? I feel the latter. For one thing, there is no clear protagonist until, perhaps, towards the end when the chapters shorten and the focus narrows to the two who we realise are the luminaries. That’s a subversion of expectations. Maybe it’s this that creates the problem.  With no protagonist for us to hang our hat on, we feel adrift, uncertain. We thought the stranger, Walter Moody, would be our protagonist but he disappears midway after the trial. Furthermore, Victorian novels tend to have clear moral arguments. This novel has themes and moral concerns, but the conclusion does not, really, resolve them. That’s not particularly subversive, but it is more modern.

Another way Catton has nodded to the 19th century tradition is through using descriptive chapter summaries to open each chapter, as in “In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika …”. You need, with this book, to be a reader who reads such details. Some readers tend to ignore  features like chapter headings, seeing them as superfluous, but in The luminaries you ignore them at your peril. As the novel draws to a close, the “in which” chapter summaries become longer as the chapters themselves, following her waning-moon astrological structure, become shorter. By the last few chapters, these so-called summaries contain information that is not further elaborated in the chapter itself. If you don’t read them, you miss some plot. I liked this playing with the form, this reminder that the book is a holistic thing. It, too, is subversive.

However, I mustn’t be too holier than thou, because I didn’t put the effort into understanding the astrological charts, which represent another nod to the 19th century (though not so much to the 19th century novel.) As I understand it, astrology, an ancient school of thought, experienced a resurgence in the 19th century after being generally discarded during the 17th-18th centuries’ Age of Enlightenment (or Reason). Goethe, no less, was an enthusiast, as was, later in the century, Jung. For me, though, reading all the text in the novel is one thing; leaving the novel to go research astrological signs and their meanings is a whole different ball-game. If such knowledge added meaning to the novel, then I’m afraid I missed it.

All this brings us to one question. Why did Catton choose to write her novel in this style? Is it riff, pastiche, reworking, or homage? I’m not sure, but it sure seems to have got a lot of people talking. As for me … I’m still puzzling!

PS One of the most interesting analyses I’ve read of the novel is by Julian Novitz in the Sydney Review of Books.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2014 01:05

    Thanks for another illuminating review, Sue. I thought, quite simply, that the Victorian language added to the sense of time and place. A novel taking place in the Victorian era is often enhanced by the use of that language. There are lots of examples, Mason & Dixon (Thomas Pynchon) comes to mind. I never thought the language was overdone, though, it was just another contributing element.

    • February 3, 2014 08:26

      Thanks Becky … I think you’re right about the language itself. It does help give authenticity to the era.

  2. acommonreaderuk permalink
    February 3, 2014 06:36

    Your two posts and Julian Novitz’s study suggest that this must be quite a remarkable book. It obviously made quite an impression on you but you still sound slightly equivocal about it’s overall value. It sounds as though it’s good in substantial parts but perhaps was a bit of a struggle at times.

    • February 3, 2014 08:30

      That’s about it. I think it’s because I like big themes and ideas on top of great writing and I haven’t decided exactly what she really wanted to say.

  3. February 3, 2014 07:36

    I haven’t read the book yet, Sue, but you certainly make me want to. All the things you say make the text sound enticing to me as a reader. As a writer you touch upon something quite close to my heart – a couple of things actually. I can’t tell you how exasperating the ‘show not tell’ injunction is, how limiting and false it is in any case. It comes out of Fiction 101 and is one of the most glaring examples of what can be wrong with creative writing courses. As for the 19th century aspect of the book, I think a lot of writers are drawn to historical settings because it frees them from another injunction – ‘less is more’ – and allows them to revel in the language.
    After all, we are artists.

    • February 3, 2014 08:24

      I’d love to know what you think then Sara, when you get to it. I think the show not tell, like any “rules”, needs to be understood not applied blindly. For me, there was so much deliciousness in her telling that I loved it. It’s what I remember most about the book … Not the details, but how I felt, how I smiled as I read her character descriptions.

      I’m a bit of a fan of less is more – but in its place. I love spare writing, but I can also love lush writing. It’s all in the artistry as you say!

      • February 3, 2014 08:59

        Yes, there’s a place for all kinds of writing. All that matters is that it works.

        • February 3, 2014 09:23

          Agree Sara – that’s the only “rule” isn’t it!

        • February 3, 2014 09:42

          Intelligent review in has a crucial role to play in this. Which makes us all the more grateful for yours !

        • February 3, 2014 12:40

          Thanks Sara … Though I always feel nervous!

  4. February 3, 2014 08:22

    I haven’t read it either, but I enjoy your reviews and I agree, like Sara, on the ‘show not tell’ rule you’ve highlighted. It’s restricting for a writer. I always advise writing students to ‘show and tell’, using their instincts to decide when to dramatise when to inform. I must check out how Catton is playing with this, whether her style choices are like you say, pastiche, or whether it’s something more interesting. So many books to catch up with…

    • February 3, 2014 09:25

      Thanks Valerie … “show and tell”. That sounds more appropriate. Would love to know your perspective on this book. I think it’s more than “only” pastiche, really, but some don’t.

  5. February 5, 2014 07:18

    So after your last post on the book I thought, well, I might read it sometime. Now you have me curious and I’m not sure if I should be 251 in line for the book at the library or if I should just add it to my library wishlist and wait for the mad rush for it to die down. Either way, I surely do want to read it.

    • February 5, 2014 08:15

      Oh goo, Stefanie … But 251 in the list? I hope the library has multiple copies. I know one person here had to rush reading it because they were reading a library copy and it had holds so she couldn’t extend it. I’m afraid I still mostly buy books.

      • February 5, 2014 08:33

        Yes, there are about a dozen or so copies and a 3-week checkout, no renewals. I think I will either have to wait until there is now waiting so I can renew it if I need to or break down and buy the paperback when it comes out.

        • February 5, 2014 09:44

          Oh, there’s no paperback there yet? We certainly have paperback here – albeit a huge one!

        • February 5, 2014 11:05

          Nope, not yet. Though the hardcover is super cheap, half the cover price, it’s such a big fat book I need it to be more compact than the hardcover even if it isn’t by much!

        • February 5, 2014 14:02

          I bet it’s way cheaper than our pb in fact. Books are expensive here.


  1. I’ve just spent 4 working days listening to one book, | theaustralianlegend

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