I know I will need to duck for cover when I say this, but I found The Luminaries to be rather a disappointment. I probably wouldn’t have minded so much if it hadn’t been so long, but when a book takes four solid days to read and reveals itself to be empty at the core, that’s tiresome.
At school, my students define literature as ‘books you’ll remember all your life’, and I was pleased to find a similar but more elegantly expressed argument from Bernard-Henri Lévy in Public Enemies, where he says that the test of a good book versus a bad one is that bad ones are dead. They are ‘books without a footprint, books that leave no trace’. (p.241) Well, I’ve given myself a week to reflect on The Luminaries, to consider whether there is some theme or observation about the human condition that I might have missed, but …
There are always numerous reviews of Booker Prize winners, and The Luminaries (see below) is no exception, with fulsome praise from judges and reviewers alike – but it didn’t take long to find a few dissenting voices that veil concerns similar to mine. Guy Somerset at the NZ Listener has similar doubts. I think he’s right: the book is hollow.
Yes, it’s a well-written pseudo-Victorian mystery novel. Set in the goldfields of New Zealand in the mid 19th century, it very successfully mimics the style of the great Victorians who wrote for what was then popular culture with equally baggy mysteries: think Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, for example. The sense of the past is credibly realised, and if you are a veteran of the Victorian novel, it will seem authentic in style, as if it were written in the period it depicts. No anachronisms that I could detect jar the reader out of the mid Victorian era. (Some reviewers are excited about stray ‘postmodern’ comments from the narrator, but that just shows they haven’t read enough Victorian novels). There is no post-colonial angst: the colonising Europeans behave towards the token Maori and Chinese exactly as one might sadly have come to expect. None of the women betray any feminist discontent with their lot.
If you are an enthusiast of the mystery genre, you will enjoy the steady drip feed of clues to muddle, confuse and distract while simultaneously building up a scenario to untangle the plot. In this novel there is no detective other than the reader, who learns the testimony of events from twelve different characters presided over by an omniscient narrator, who occasionally assists with a comment such as noting that one of the characters reacts to ‘the lie’. But it is not like the mysteries of Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope because these great writers had something to say about the human condition and the social environment in which their stories took place. Catton’s book has nothing to say at all.
Her characters gather, discover that they all have different parts of the jigsaw puzzle, and over 800 pages the story is assembled. The story is constructed using a network based on astrology, and from what I can tell (since I have never given astrology the time of day) the characters correspond to the nonsense that astrologers peddle about personality types, and behave in a predetermined way on the basis of their star signs. Certainly none of these characters appear to grow or develop, which in a book of 800 pages is a grave limitation.
Over at Winston’s Dad, Stu introduced me to the term ‘oulipo’, a French literary movement which involves writing under certain constraints. The most famous of these is a book which declines to include the letter ‘e’. While I have not yet read any of these, they interest me because they sound witty and clever, but the wit and cleverness relies on the reader being able to appreciate the skill in constructing such a book. (Translated into Chinese, for example, a missing ‘e’ is presumably undetectable among the pictograms.) Likewise, a book that relies on a credulous knowledge of pseudoscience for its impact would be a risky venture if it were not for the sad fact that plenty of otherwise intelligent people actually believe in astrology, (and some even expect their belief to be treated with the same respect as religious belief, and like all pseudoscientists, they tell you that if you take the trouble (and by inference, are smart enough) to study it properly you will come round to their point of view).
There isn’t really any way to lighten up about this. The book imposes its structure and characterisation, and to appreciate its alleged brilliance, one needs to invest time in learning mumbo-jumbo. Well, writers write the way they will, and the Booker is always a captive of its judges and the people who select them, but The Luminaries was 800 pages too long for me and a sorry successor to Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
Commenting in The Guardian about the way in which women authors are interviewed by comparison with men, Catton is reported as saying that
The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime.”
Sagely, the interviewer did not unpack the ways in which Catton thinks that The Luminaries is a work of philosophy…
If you have not already come across enough reviews of The Luminaries, here are some more from fans and detractors:
- Lucy Daniel at The Telegraph who admired the plotting;
- Simmy Richman at The Independent who thought that this rangy, enormous brilliant novel’s sheer rip-roaring readability might tell against it in the race for the Booker;
- Brian Morton at The Independent who thinks the book shows mastery of fictional form;
- David Hebblewhite at Follow the Thread who thinks that Eleanor Catton belongs in the first rank of authors writing today.
- Noted NZ author C.K. Stead at the Financial Times UK who says that the demands made on time and attention offered insufficient human or intellectual return;
- David Sexton at the London Evening Standard found the prose style an intolerable affectation; and
- Kirsty Gunn at The Guardian who makes a virtue of the book’s empty core:
But it is also a massive shaggy dog story; a great empty bag; an enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat. For nothing in this enormous book, with its exotic and varied cast of characters whose lives all affect each other and whose fates are intricately entwined, amounts to anything like the moral and emotional weight one would expect of it. That’s the point, in the end, I think, of The Luminaries. It’s not about story at all. 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.
Hmpf. The Emperor has no clothes.
PS Lee Monks, commenting on the review at Kevin from Canada, describes The Luminaries as “somewhere between ‘Superior supermarket novel’ and ‘Accomplished and authentic comic drama’ ” accomplishing in eleven words what I’ve said in 1200+.
Author: Eleanor Catton
Title: The Luminaries
Publisher: Granta 2013
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore, Sandringham $32.95
Fishpond: The Luminaries