The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton

Earlier this year, I stacked my library holds with popular books from 2013, but I was a bit hesitant to add The Luminaries. I have a pretty narrow threshold for historical fiction, yet clearly people loved it. With Eleanor Catton being the youngest winner of the Man Booker Prize, ultimately my curiosity won out. Though when I finally waited my way to the top of the hold list, the book’s second distinction as Booker winner suddenly loomed and heavily, as it’s also the longest book to win so far. It wasn’t too ago that I breezed through The Goldfinch, and within the shadow of that memory, the first twenty pages felt like a literary eternity. But I gave it fifty pages and was sufficiently engrossed by then to continue.

Everything about this book is its structure: the twelve main characters represent different signs of the zodiac, and they move through the story astrologically. Additionally the chapters wane in their size, the first one clocking in at 360 pages and each one thereafter half the length of the one before it. For the most part the astrological machinations are a vaguely interesting overlay on top of what is essentially a murder mystery. That first chapter is excellent, as the group of characters relate the story so far to a newcomer who attempts to piece the clues together. There’s a recurring theme of truth — specifically whole truths — and you’re aware that, even with the perspectives of twelve people on this matter, an entire truth is still out of reach. What happens between two people can never be fully known by anyone else.

By the end I felt the book suffered a lot for its structure. There’s a scene in the middle where a character puts on a bit of theater in the form of a séance, and she covertly attaches threads on a lit lamp to her sleeves in order to create a dramatic moment to stun her witnesses. The Luminaries often feels like such a parlor trick, threads tied across the various surfaces of the plot that are periodically yanked to imply an otherworldliness in the story that doesn’t actually deliver. I became rather weary of the overly-engineered narrative and sensed it wasn’t going to turn out as interesting as I’d hoped. It became especially tiresome that the book lacks any post-colonial lens, so the white Europeans act as entitled as you’d imagine they did yet without a hint of narrative critique. Finishing became a task, met with determination, even as the chapters waned ever shorter. I definitely felt like talking about it afterward, but since none of my friends had read it, I think I only succeeded in dissuading them from trying. Kirsty Gunn in her review for The Guardian said the story isn’t the point:

It’s about what happens to us when we read novels — what we think we want from them — and from novels of this size, in particular. Is it worthwhile to spend so much time with a story that in the end isn’t invested in its characters? Or is thinking about why we should care about them in the first place the really interesting thing? Making us consider so carefully whether we want a story with emotion and heart or an intellectual idea about the novel in the disguise of historical fiction … There lies the real triumph of Catton’s remarkable book.