The Luminaries. Eleanor Catton. 2013. (Granta Publications, 2014)
Perhaps unsurprisingly for an 800+ page Booker Prize winning novel, The Luminaries is a tome with decided pretentions. One of the aspects of modern literature which this blog has occasionally considered in the past is the question of just how books are marketed to the public, and whilst today’s subject is not exactly in disguise, there is a certain considered coyness around elements of its constitution. Simply put, Luminaries is a crime novel, a complex historical whodunit, yet this potentially populist label is deliberately avoided. Coupled with the zodiacal seam running through its pages, (at some distance from the narrative itself), the end product is a book with an unusual but palpable aura. That we begin with a character chart, which divides our players into Stellar, Planetary and Terra Firma groups, does nothing to dispel the air of mysterious erudition, and yet the story itself could easily survive without such peripheral paraphernalia. I can’t think of too many novels whose stage is set so meticulously before the tale is begun when an absolute concrete need does not exist. Our author clearly wants us to enjoy the story against a very specific mental backdrop, which is a bold and interesting move.
I suspect that the temptation for most when reviewing such a confident book, steeped in international recognition and success, and with clear affectations from the onset, might be to find the inevitable flaws and go to town knocking the magnum opus off its lofty perch. On the other hand, maybe that’s only true for those, such as myself, with deeply uncharitable natures. In any case, whatever one’s natural predilection to build up or do down, the craftwork of The Luminaries is so strikingly apparent that to ignore it would be a callous dereliction. I am under no illusions about my own skills as a writer (exhibits A-Z for the prosecution can be found among this blog’s output) but oftentimes when I read I like to fancifully consider whether I could reasonably have fashioned even a single sentence which has gone into a work’s creation. Most of the time the answer is, obviously, an undiluted ‘no’, but even so the manner in which the cognitive wheels have turned in an author’s head to get to their end product is usually to some degree discernible, even if you can’t reproduce it yourself. With The Luminaries I found even this step outright impossible. The prose simply flows and ripples in such a unique manner as to render such analysis futile. This isn’t just because of the erudition which has gone into constructing a richly believable historical reality and its attendant denizens. Moreover, it’s testament to the fact that the author has really written a new type of novel, a page-turner which is as densely and unashamedly verbose as any classic of the Victorian era.
Nor have I come across too many books which offer such cutting insights into the fundaments of human nature. Yet it would be a huge disservice to call it aphoristic, given that these observations are interwoven so naturalistically. The effect is a ready mine of epiphanies for readers who are so inclined to accept the philosophy on offer. My personal favourite is one character’s observation that given how much of our life is given over to the contemplation of death, the afterlife itself might be a strikingly boring and empty affair. It is simply astounding how many profoundly substantial musings spring from the author’s pen, and the reader will drop their attention, even for a second, at only their own expense.
Given that this isn’t a cover blurb we should make some attempt to temper our praise for The Luminaries to some extent, and for all its craftsmanship there are some obvious flaws therein. Some of these indeed derive from its own readability. Because it’s easy to see a few hours pass in the company of this novel, and consume a hundred or so pages in the process, a repetitive reliance on some limited formulations becomes more pronounced and noticeable. We have about 15 main players in the plot, which should in theory give rise to a whole host of possible constructions of interaction. Yet we see practically the same conversation repeat itself over-and-over. Two (usually male) characters will converse. We will receive fairly lengthy declamations on their characters, temperaments and predilections (not unusual practice but, given the number of male leads, difficult to remember in their finer detail), and once or twice per scene a protagonist will learn some new information which visibly shocks them. The book is almost Socratic in its devotion to the dialogue, perhaps unsurprising for a work which reads on occasion like a philosophical tract. Amazingly though, these dialogues without fail prove to be well constructed, they move the plot along at a perfect pace, and the characters retain their own unique identities despite any shortcomings in the system. The amount of reoccurrence is jarring and uncomfortable to our sensibilities, but if the pace and enjoyability of the narrative remains intact, does this matter?
We could ask a similar question about the crime (or at this stage a presumed misdemeanour) at the very heart of the story, in terms of whether or not it is of importance to us, and to what extent we can be invested in its solution. At the moment it seems that the primary antagonist is likely to be one of the individuals who has existed on the circumference of the main action heretofore. That shouldn’t matter of course, it all depends on the execution of the reveal. The interwoven connections between each character, including with those in whose direct company we spend precious little time, have been meticulously constructed, and are immensely complicated. It would be impossible to keep track of developments, were it not for the author’s good natured and subtly reminders dotted throughout. The intricate web of our players and the depth of their back stories, coupled with prose of such quality, promises a deeply satisfying pay off. Having set our sights so high, anything less would be a disappointment. And as always, for each 100 pages you add to a text, the contract between author and reader becomes that little less forgiving.
1/2 Way Rating: 9/10 Final Rating: 7/10