Book Review – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

E. M. Forster once wrote, “One tends to praise a long book because one has gotten through it.” With the greatest of respect to Mr. Forster, I wonder if he’d have expressed that sentiment had he read The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.  What this book lacked in substance it made up for in volume coming in at a monumental 834 pages. I thought the overall premise dull and the amount of time it took to tie the whole story together ridiculously taxing. While awarded the 2013 Man-Booker Prize, this is not a book for everyone.

The novel began with a mystery involving a death in a cabin, an opium addicted prostitute and some missing gold. The story then developed through twelve different characters all of whom had some degree of involvement with at least one of the elements just mentioned. The signs of the zodiac served as the cohesive theme linking the whole narrative together, with each character and event having some relation to it. While this may appear interesting, I think the overall story itself fell short of the promise.

I didn’t enjoy the way the author presented the narrative. It took place in a New Zealand mining town in 1866. The writing style mimicked that of a nineteenth century author. It included the use of d—n as opposed to writing out the word damn. I found this to be annoying and a bit out of synch with the complete writing of words such as whore and prostitute. If the author intended to write a modern version of a Victorian novel, I would’ve appreciated more consistency.

As any modern writer knows, two things that good authors avoid are telling and back-story. Catton littered The Luminaries with an abundance of both. To make this even worse, she provided lots of back-story for all the characters. It distracted and took me away from the main story too often. I’m not going to cite examples. A reader can open to just about any page and see what I mean.

I thought some of the prose difficult to understand. Try unraveling this mind twisting paradox on page 502.

…if I am interested in those truths that are yet unknown, it is only so that they might, in time, be made known—or, to put it more plainly, so that in time, I might come to know them.

Did Eleanor Catton work as a speech writer for Donald Rumsfeld before becoming a novelist?

The book’s structure made it unnecessarily challenging to follow. I mentioned that events and characters in the book revolved around the signs of the zodiac. As if that didn’t make matters confusing enough, the author varied the last several chapters between the present and the past.  I read the entire book, but the last hundred pages tempted me to put it down. I thought they belabored a novel that cried out to be ended.

The overall concept required that the author utilize at least 12 characters. I really thought some of them could’ve been eliminated in favor of accelerating the plot. Specifically, I thought the roles played by Te Rau Tauwhare and Quee Long could’ve been assigned to other characters. It also would’ve shortened the book’s length. Unfortunately, the complexity forced the author to drag out a number of elements in order to include all these characters.

The Luminaries is not a book that would appeal to everyone. The author created a unique and sophisticated structure that sacrificed the quality of the story. I found the book unnecessarily long and dull. The pseudo-nineteenth century writing style didn’t help matters, either. But, maybe it’s me. After all, there’s a full moon tonight and Aries is in the descendant.   

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One comment

  1. Awesome review! I’ve been unsure for a while if I was going to tackle this book or not. I adore Man Booker Prize winners, but this was a bit lengthy for me.

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