Book Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
by Eleanor Catton
McClelland & Stewart, 2013
This book put me in mind of an Agatha Christie mystery—something like The Mousetrap perhaps—but without the clever twist ending. It has the same “people running in and out of doors” feeling, and the same layers of conspiracy and secrets kept or told when they shouldn’t be.
Set in the mid-19th Century gold rush in a wild part of New Zealand, the book details a suspicious death and the intersecting involvement of a diverse cast of characters. Catton tells the story from multiple points of view with new plot details unveiled with each telling and new character insights revealed. The multiple points of view reinforces one of her main themes: we can never know the whole story or see the full picture. “. . . never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view,” she writes. The character Walter Moody says: “I am trying to decide between the whole truth, and nothing but the truth . . .. I am afraid my history is such that I can’t manage both at once.” Catton’s goal, I believe, is to keep readers on their toes, always second-guessing the characters and what they are capable of. She creates a New Zealand town that is “. . . a perfect hive of contradictions,” where characters both shine with gold and “muck and hazard,” just like the goldfields that surround them.
This book won its many awards because of this gift with character development and because of Catton’s rich use of irony. For example, the governor of the gaol states, as he is exacting revenge: “Revenge . . . is an act of jealousy, not of justice. It is a selfish perversion of the law.”
Catton constructs her book around astrological charts and the phases of the moon, to the extent that the structure determines the telling of the story, rather than the story determining the telling of the story. I felt her structure did a disservice to her characters and the narrative. She uses “In which . . . ” chapter headings, and by the end of the book, in order to stick to the structure she created for herself (not for the story), the chapter headings unfold more plot than the chapters do. Ineffectively, I might add. I expect her choice of structure wowed the prize juries, but to me it felt contrived, unnecessary and, worst of all, harmful to the story.
I read an e-version, because I took with me on my vacation, and I didn’t want to pack an 800+-page tome in my suitcase. This presented two problems for me. First, it is more difficult to flip back and refresh memories of past events and characters in an e-book, and the convoluted plotting of this book required some flipping back. Second, the dialogue was not properly laid out from time to time in my version, so I was confused more than once about who was speaking. If you plan on reading this book, I recommend paper.
I’ve come to believe that book prize juries seek something your average reader doesn’t want or need. A prize-winning book should entertain, inspire, and carry readers away. Readers should set the finished book down with a sigh of satisfaction. They should want to keep the book forever. They should want to read it again someday.
I understand why this book received the prizes it did. The irony, the characters, the astrological chart/moon structure appealed to the artistic sentiments of the jurors. But I found the structure frustrating and the ending unsatisfying. I set the book down thinking, “Huh?” I don’t need to keep the book, and I don’t want to read it again.
Catton has proven her ability to develop characters, create suspense and touch that perfect irony funnybone. I hope she writes her next book using all of those skills but without restricting the story to unnecessary confines.
Posted on March 19, 2014, in Book Club, Book reviews, Books I bought, Fiction, Man Booker Prize, McClelland & Stewart, Scotiabank Giller Prize Nominees and tagged Eleanor Catton, gold rush, New Zealand. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.