Review: The Luminaries

by drpoppy

The Luminaries
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is something strangely ethereal about Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the celestial nature of the title and the star charts that underpin the structure of the novel. At 848 pages, you might expect something heavier in subject and tone to match the literal weight of the novel itself. Instead, the novel is almost airy, the words—particularly late in the novel—seem almost to rise off pages that are incapable of holding onto them.

The novel gives the appearance at first to be an old-fashioned Victorian yarn of the sensation novel variety: there’s a mystery, a missing person, a possible ghost, several ship wrecks, an opium-smoking prostitute, a fortune teller, stolen gold, a fairy-tale-like story involving women’s dresses, and a young man seeking his fortune in a country far from his home. Indeed, the story even opens on a dark and stormy night, when our fortune-seeker accidentally walks into the back room of a bar where a secret meeting is taking place. And yet, despite these trappings, this is not at all the juicy, engrossing Victorian pastiche I expected. Instead, Catton enchants.

Initially, it was a bit hard for me to get into the book, though I couldn’t understand why, since I am used to reading lengthy nineteenth-century tome with huge casts of characters. In The Luminaries, there are 13 male characters taking turns telling their stories, plus a couple of additional characters that were involved in the stories but not telling them. I found myself re-reading passages and feeling a bit confused about the roles of different (male) characters. I didn’t even bother with the astrological charts, and while I feel a little bad about that, since I’m sure they added something for those who could read them, I knew it wasn’t for me. The novel begins as a bit of a puzzler: wide in scope, crowded with characters, and involved in revisiting details of a mystery over and over with only the tiniest movement toward a new piece of information. But once I gave myself over to it, and once a few very crucial details became known (perhaps we would disagree about what were these crucial details), the story began to take off at a rollicking pace, only to slow down again and focus in again toward the end. At first the effect of the ending is frustrating, as you basically have already inferred the backstory Catton is filling in. But then something amazing happens: the story, the pages, the words, begin to unravel before your eyes as white space begins to engulf the text and the descriptions of what is happening in a chapter become longer than the scenes themselves. And then, the final disembodied words, quiet and intimate after a whirlwind description of the mechanizations of fate. To me, the ending of this novel feels, more than anything else, like blowing on a dandelion and watching the seeds scatter.

I have no idea whether or not this review even makes sense, much less compels a reader to pick up the book. But I wanted to try to capture the feeling of reading this novel. I can say I found it beguiling, and am astounded by the feats Catton achieves. I cannot give it 5 stars, as the technical feats, for me, outweighed the heart of the book too much; though I was intellectually engaged, I was never drawn fully into the novel. But I still recommend it.

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