It was heralded as a masterpiece of contemporary fiction.
It was heralded as a masterpiece of contemporary fiction. An 800 page doorstopper of Victorian pastiche that had reviewers gushing, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries won last year’s Booker prize to much discussion. After a literature degree spent trawling through Austen and Dickens, the Brontes and Hardy I have an ingrained hatred of Victorian literature.
You may think they’re classics – I find them untidy and bland and I like my prose clean and inventive.
Both absorbing and interesting
That said, I really liked The Luminaries. It has an absorbing plot, a twisting mystery with simple, solid foundations which compels you to read on and on. The characters, despite being a huge host of men with a smattering of women, are well defined and interesting people – we gradually learn what makes them tick, making us invest more in the story.
Catton’s delicious descriptions of the misty New Zealand landscapes and the close attention to detail throughout the novel build up a fascinating background world to the characters tangle of stories.
I enjoyed the switching of viewpoints, following one story for a while before we lose the thread at a crucial moment to examine someone else – it keeps the pace of the novel steady enough so we can follow the complicated strands of the story, but not so slow and drawn out that we get bored or forget what is going on.
It seems to be a book you have to read in large chunks. If you’re only getting through a few pages a night, not only will it take you years to finish this behemoth, but you’ll keep losing track on who and what is going on.
Not enough women and too much star terminology
My major issue is the women. There are three named female characters in the book; for the most part they don’t do anything. They are discussed at length by the men, they are manipulated and used by the men and they are mistrusted by… yes, the men. The women are rarely the focus in chapters, for all the characters and interlocking plot points.
Particularly Anna – she is an integral part of the mysterious goings on, yet she is someone who things happen to rather than doing anything of her own accord. She is owned, used, bought, sold and manipulated by all the men in turn, even as they profess to being charmed and intrigued by her.
There is a “marked absence of the feminine” throughout the book which was a big disappointment to me. You would think in a book of 800+ pages, a few more could be devoted to the women in the story. The three female characters are archetypes – the whore, the schemer and the silent wife – added to the writing style it makes the whole book seem outdated.
It is, as with so many other things, women through the eyes of men. They are detached from the narrative even as they drive it and all the pieces of the puzzle hinge on Anna, Lydia and even Margaret, but we see them only as the fantasies and suspicions of men, rather than as people in their own right.
The references to star phases and astrological terms are never fully explained; if they’re important to the plot, then that’s an aspect of the novel that went over my head. I guess any readers who aren’t well versed in star terminology would have missed out as well.
An unfulfilling ending
The Luminaries is a very good book. It has everything you would want from an involving summer read, but the ending frustratingly leaves threads of the story hanging. The timeline changes to tie up the loose ends of one story, but there are fundamental questions from other strands of the plot which are never answered.
Rather than ending with a dramatic flourish in keeping with the rest of the book, it tails off as a disappointing fade out. There are quite a few points which should have been developed further and it’s a shame that this potential is never fulfilled.
What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.