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The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton — book review

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“A person’s fortune always changes in the telling of it.”

Turns out that reading The Luminaries was a phenomenal waste of my time. Eleanor Catton writes well, and the concept behind her novel had the potential of being interesting, but on the whole The Luminaries seems to be little more than a dull rehash of Wilkie Collins’ Sensation novels. What is worse is tat Catton treats her characters as if they were disposable accessories, seeming far more focused on weaving into her storyline vague allusion to astrological signs rather than of creating memorable characters or an intriguing mystery.
At the end of the day a polished prose—which seems to merely mimic the language of nineteenth century fiction—doesn’t make up for the fact that over the course of nearly 900 pages Catton tells a story that isn’t worth reading.

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The novel’s astrology-based structure—which is made apparent from the character chart and the various charts which are interspersed throughout this tome of a book—amounts to little more than a clever gimmick. The all-knowing narrator tries to inject the many events recounted by the narrative with some sort of mystical meaning which came across as being both contrived and banal.

The story’s opening chapters are promising enough.On a stormy January night in 1866 Walter Moody, one of the book’s central figures, takes shelter in the Crown Hotel (Hokitika, New Zealand) and, unbeknownst to him, interrupts a secret meeting between twelve men. Over the course of the next 400 pages or so each man gives his account (directly and not) regarding the suspicious death of a hermit named Crosbie Wells, the possible suicide of Anna Wetherell (a prostitute often referred by 90% of the characters as ‘the whore’), and Francis Carver, a captain of ill-repute. Each has played a different role in these strange events, and naturally they all have an incomplete picture of these odd occurrences and coincidences. With the help of Moody they try to put the various pieces of this puzzle together. So far…so good, right?
Sadly, I soon realised that these characters were of secondary importance to the very structure of the novel. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much if these characters weren’t so easily forgotten and swept aside by the narrative which around at the 70% mark ends up focusing on two of the most weakly drawn characters of the entire novel. One was largely MIA, the other one possessed a personality that was defined by her profession…and all of a sudden I’m 1) supposed to care for these two, 2) take them seriously. S-u-r-e thing.
The twelve men were stereotypes but they had the potential of being interesting. Yet the narrative doesn’t really do anything with them (I was particularly frustrated by Ah Sook’s character arc).710V6t8+AGL.jpg
In spite of the emphasis that our omniscient narrator puts on faith and the converging paths of these various characters, it all seemed so random and inconsequential.
Hundreds and hundreds of pages and there is no pay off.
The setting of the story lacks ambience. The narrative does ‘tells’ a lot and ‘shows’ very little. While Eleanor Catton’s writing does accurately convey the historical period in which her story is set, it also struck me as cold.
Her prose lacks Wilkie Collins’ humour. Her story and structure seem far too dull and contrived to be part of the Sensation genre. There may be certain elements (stolen identities, secret marriages, forged documents, an evil woman) but there is no passion, no spark. The characters are unfunny stereotypes that have no real impact on the narrative. If the story doesn’t care for its characters, why should I?
There are so many descriptions about their behaviours and values that don’t really amount to anything. Their personalities are almost interchangeable. At times these descriptions of their beliefs and conducts seemed to be little more than results of Catton’s logorrhoea. They sounded clever but they didn’t really go towards making that character (and his motivations) more vivid or realistic.
There is a lot of repetition. Some was intentional (given that these men are discussing the same events time and again) a lot was empty prattle. Much of the dialogue consisted in characters asking the same question twice or three times, giving the same reply twice or three times, or not understanding each other (and having to repeated themselves twice or thee times).
While I can’t deny that Catton can write very eloquently indeed, I was only able to enjoy the first 200 pages or so of her novel.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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