The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

This book is a Mann Booker Award winner and weighs in at a hefty 800+ pages.  It is shelved in most locales as “literary fiction”, however at the heart it is a mystery.  I could spend some time railing at the hypocrisy of literary fiction “types” swooping in and grabbing up books that are mysteries, while at the same time pooh-poohing genre fiction and its readers, but that has been done and by much better writers than me.

I was intrigued by this because of several reasons, it won a prestigious literary award while being a mystery, it was appearing on blogs and bookshelves everywhere, and it genuinely sounded  like an interesting story.  I found a copy at my library book sale for $1 so I picked it up gratefully.

The premise is Walter Moody arrives in a small isolated mining town in 1866.  He finds himself in a room with 12 men where the tension is evident.  It was a dark and stormy night… and a man walks into a bar… all rolled into one.   One by one, the men tell him their stories and the events unfold. (Why would they even do this, is my first question?)  The main plot surrounds an isolated hermit, Crosbie Wells, who is murdered and a whore found beaten and drugged on the roadside.  From these simple ideas a twisting tale evolves that includes stolen identities, theft, murder, prostitutes and pimps, smuggling, and astrology, lots and lots of astrology.  Sounds exciting, right?…

Not so much, I really feel that I will be in a small minority here but I didn’t find this book extraordinary or even engaging. I really had to push my way through it.  The 12 men are based on their astrological signs for their characters, there really is not an incredible difference between them and when you find one that engages you, it is time to move on to the next one and start again.  There is a huge amount of “telling” and then eventually some showing about each character.

The author presupposes that everyone has a knowledge of astrology rather more than the occasional reading your horoscope in the newspaper.  There is a “mystical” element of characters being linked by their accidents of birth, which is explicitly told to you but then makes huge leaps. There is also no development of a sense of place, I would think that such an interesting setting would be fully developed so that the reader could immerse themselves.  Think about a gold rush town in New Zealand in 1866, as a reader I would expect to be able to feel the rush of the water, sense the desperation in the miners, experience the “gold fever” of the prospectors as they arrive, the heat, the dirt, the beauty of the pristine (unmined) Maori lands…but no, we get none of that.  I had other really specific issues but it would be telling the book over again so I will stop here.

Color me significantly underwhelmed.  My biggest issue is the opportunity cost of reading this book.  I am a relatively fast reader (unless I am not engaged) and in the time it took me to read this, I could have read several other books from the teetering tower by my bed.  This book seems to contribute to the “big book” theme that is floating around.   I am concerned that young authors like Ms. Catton are feeling that for their book to be “important” it needs to be big and that is such a false idea.  At around 300 or so pages in length, this would have been a better book.

I’d welcome any thoughts!

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2 thoughts on “The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

  1. Tina says:

    Hey, at least you only shelled out $1 for this book. It does sound intriguing the way it’s set up with the 12 men telling their versions. Pity it wasn’t a page turner.

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