Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton)

Through various times in my life, I have flirted with the idea of being a literary snob. There are periods in which I buy four or five books that are winners of the Booker Prize or perhaps the National Book Award (all at bargain price, of course) and, after two+ years of not reading them, I get rid of them. The problem with literary awards, at least in my mind, is that they intentionally ignore popular novels that deserve praise (The Ocean at the End of the Lane, obviously) and load praise onto obscure books that no one cares about that turn out to be rather boring anyway (I was going to include an example but seriously, just pick any major prize winner from the last decade). The Luminaries is the 2013 Booker Prize winner, and I only talked myself into buying it because it sounded interesting and I had actually heard of it prior to its award-winning buzz. So here I am, ten days after I began reading, to tell you how I feel.

There are two major things about this book that get mentioned when it comes up: the first is that the author, Eleanor Catton, is only 28, which makes her the youngest-ever winner of the Booker Prize and that her books is 830+ pages, which also makes it the longest book ever to win the award. The second thing you'll hear is a discussion of its experimental structure, where the book is divided into 12 sections ever diminishing in size with characters representing astrological figures; the book makes use of star charts in its representations of characters.

But I'm here to argue that all of that stuff doesn't matter--those are reasons that are not relevant to why The Luminaries is a good book, because it certainly is. The novel is set in 1860s New Zealand during the gold rush, and in my opinion, that's reason enough to read it--it's like a mashup of Victorian London drama and Wild West adventure. Why haven't more people written about New Zealand? Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika, a mining town, at the same town that it experiences a big scandal: a man named Crosbie Wells is found dead, a prostitute named Anna Wetherell is found nearly dead of opium overdose and a miner named Emery Staines has gone missing.

I would argue that these are the three main components of the mystery, but understand that this novel is Dickensian, which means there is a large cast of characters who ratchet up the intrigue and complexity of the plot. There is also blackmail, impersonation, hidden gold, adultery, and a seance. That's the best I can do for plot summary, because it is a story very intricately woven and it's too tempting to simplify and make the book sound confusing.

In terms of narrative and character, the book is stellar (that was a pretty good pun, right? Stellar/luminary??? ;D). It's clear that Anna Wetherell the prostitute is the center player of this tale, and she was the most interesting to follow. But the other 15 or 20 characters who Catton creates and follows around Hokitika are just as engaging, I promise. One of the concepts she draws on from astrology is personality being tied to star sign, so characters embody their typical characteristics of their signs, but she uses this only as an excuse to flesh out these pseudoscientific classifications.

The narrative is a little complex, perhaps too much. I had to make myself a character map about halfway through that I could glance at for the remainder of the book because I was having trouble, and if the thought of that is putting you off, please don't let it. Catton's second novel is more than worth the work of keeping up with its soap-operatic drama.

But it's not a perfect novel. The author clearly takes after the great Victorian authors of old--I called The Luminaries Dickensian earlier, and I meant it both negatively and positively: while the characters and narrative are expansive, so is the writing. There are huge passages of dense description that will remind you how Great Expectations was indeed boring in parts, but I was willing to tread through those long-winded moments to get to the good stuff. The verbose moments leave the novel a little too long, as does the last two hundred pages' revisiting events prior to the beginning of section one--830ish pages is daunting, especially when the book didn't need to be quite so long.

Nonetheless, I loved the book. It's a brilliant exercise in character drama narrative, a genre that has mostly died (which is unfortunate, for I love it dearly). The setting is just as interesting to me as the characters and Catton renders it so well that it feels both exotic and familiar all at once. This is clearly not an author to forget about, and for once it deserves the award. It's not a stodgy British book (sorry, The Sense of an Ending). It's a riveting adventure-romance-mystery-historical firecracker.

My rating: 4.5/5
The Luminaries on Goodreads
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