I rate it: 8/10
Six word summary: murky conundrum in NZ gold mines
Any reader who takes a book of more than 800 pages in hand knows that there is a 70% chance that she will lose interest midway. This says nothing about attention deficiency in the reader, or lack of skill in the writing, it is merely the nature of the beast. A really long book, whether it is a saga or a murder mystery, will sag at points, will over-elaborate, and will generally not know where to sensibly stop. We know these things through many years of reading experience.
Eleanor Catton’s Booker winning marble slab of a book defies most of these things we know. It weaves a complex storyline, occasionally baffling even the most perceptive readers, but not once in its 832 pages does it lose pace or become boring.
Twelve men meet at the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, New Zealand, in January, 1866, to discuss and get to the bottom of some extremely peculiar incidents that have been taking place in the mining town in the past fortnight. A penniless recluse has been found dead with an enormous amount of pure gold in his keeping. A prostitute has attempted suicide or been poisoned. A very wealthy young man has gone missing. And each of the twelve men in the gathering have been implicated in some way or the other. Each has something to share and something to hide, something to explain and something to understand, some prejudices and some bafflement. Walter Moody, fresh off the boat and grappling with recent horrors, stumbles upon this assembly quite by accident, and becomes entangled in the events that are causing such turmoil in the tiny township. Gleaming in the background are trails of blackmail, betrayal, lust, villainy, black magic, and murder most foul.
I liked several things about The Luminaries, but what I liked the most, I think, is the depth of back-story and human logic the writer builds behind almost all of the characters. With a light touch, she gives these people driving forces of not merely thick-brushed sentiments like love, hate, wrath, or envy, but also fine-stroked ones like loneliness, bewilderment, nostalgia, longing, alienation, annoyance, hubris, and desire to please, that an ordinary reader like me could identify with. I think it was Death of the Endless that said something like it is impossible to not love somebody if you know them like they know themselves, and through the course of this book, we learn so much about these men (and woman) that they tug at our heartstrings. My only gripe is that the two villains are not really given this treatment, leaving them as two-dimensional cartoon villains that are driven by greed, lust, and hate. I think it would have been a tremendous achievement for Ms. Catton if she could have made me empathize with Francis Carver and Lydia Wells.
The other thing I enjoyed was the fact that, having created a deeply convoluted plot, Eleanor Catton doesn’t spoil it by over-explaining. She lets readers put two and two together, giving us plenty of “Oh!’ and “Aha! So that’s how..” moments. I’ve said it before in my review of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall- an author who respects the intelligence of her readers is a rare delight.
A lot has been written about the daring structure of this novel. Apparently, each chapter is progressively exactly half the size of its preceding chapter, such that in the last few pieces, the summary introduction is actually longer than the chapter itself. Also the chapters reflect the various phases of the moon or astro-charts or something. Frankly, I could take that or leave it. I hadn’t even noticed it while reading. I’ve said it before, I’m sold on the story and the telling every time. The structure can go pleasure itself.
Even as I lavish so much praise on The Luminaries, I know pretty certainly that it is not a book for everybody. It’s really long, needs a lot of patience and careful reading, and there is far too much dialogue and very little action. All the same, I’m with the Man Booker jury on this one, The luminaries is a stunning piece of fiction, and you should at least try it before you meh it.
It took me seven and a half hours to read The Luminaries from cover to cover, but I should not leave off mentioning that it took me three weekends to actually get around to reading it in one sitting (or bed-lounging, whatever). It was too heavy for me to carry on my commute, and I could only read it on weekends. Every time I tried to pick up where I left off, I found I had forgotten who was who and who did what, so I had to start over again. This happened trice before I stayed up all night one Friday to slay the beast once and for all.
Took a very long break from reviewing. Great to be back, y’all!
-Amritorupa “what is mine is mine” Kanjilal