05 December 2013

Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries by Eleanor CattonI have never had much luck with major award-winning books, and unfortunately, Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries (Booker Prize winner) didn't break my streak.

As I mentioned in a Thursday Tea post a couple of weeks ago, the novel takes place in 1866 in Hokitika, New Zealand, on the edges of the gold fields. On the first night Walter Moody, a Scotsman, arrives in town, he inadvertently crashes a secret meeting of twelve men who have gathered to untangle a series of interconnected mysteries involving death, disappearance, theft, false identity, women, opium, and hidden riches.

Moody is soon caught up in the men's stories, eventually revealing a few strange occurrences of his own. The novel is told in a nonlinear fashion and from a variety of viewpoints, and each individual episode reveals a bit of the truth behind one or more of the mysteries.

Catton choose a precise structure for her novel, in which the length of each part is consecutively and proportionally smaller, from the 360-page opener to the 2-page closer. In addition, each chapter within the parts is given an astrological title, which is (presumably) related to the events and people taking center stage in the ensuing text. Another clever bit has to do with the names of the people--for example, Mr. Frost is said to have spoken coolly, and Mr. Staines is described as being colorful.

There is a large cast of characters in The Luminaries, and no one, male or female, is without flaws. Each has arrived in Hokitika to make a new start, but no one is able to escape the past. Although I had trouble with the novel as a whole, Catton created complex and fascinating characters who were driven by personal demons.

Because the novel unfolds from different points of view and zigzags through time, we read about the same key events several times. Unfortunately, the repetition began to drag long before I reached page 830 (or rather hour 29), and although the characters were real enough, I soon lost interest in who (if anyone) was telling the truth and how the intertwined mysteries would eventually be solved. I can't help but wonder how many of the lengthy descriptions Catton would have cut if The Luminaries had been written with a looser structure. Were scenes and background stories included just to make sure each part had the correct number of pages?

I listened to the unabridged audiobook edition (Audible, Inc.; 29 hr, 14 min) narrated by Mark Meadows, whose pacing, accents, and characterizations kept me listening until the end. My full audiobook review will be available from AudioFile magazine.

Published by Hachette Book Group / Little, Brown 2013
ISBN-13: 9780316074315
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


JoAnn 12/5/13, 7:25 AM  

I don't have the best luck with Booker prize winners either and have been hesitant to start this one Guess I'll wait a little longer...

Kelly Simmons 12/5/13, 7:31 AM  

I just finished this last week -- it was kind of like homework. :)

Shannon @ River City Reading 12/5/13, 7:52 AM  

I had finished The Goldfinch less than a month before starting this, so I wasn't sure if the trouble I had with it was because of the comparisons I kept drawing, but I really struggled. I flew through Tartt's novel in less than a week, but found myself feeling forced to read just a few pages of The Luminaries. I ended up putting it down after getting through 1/4 of the novel, feeling like my reading time would be better spent.

Heather 12/5/13, 10:24 AM  

I'm looking forward to starting this one. I do have a fascination with New Zealand and purchased it before she won the Booker, also won the Governor General Award in Canada.

bermudaonion 12/5/13, 10:45 AM  

I struggle with big award winners too and then I wonder what the judges got that I didn't. Sorry you didn't love this one.

Meg @ write meg! 12/5/13, 11:47 AM  

Twenty. Nine. Hours? I . . . I'm not sure I could do it, especially given the reservations you had about this one! Kudos for making it to the end. The premise sounds interesting, but sounds like it would ultimately fail to capture my attention.

rhapsodyinbooks 12/5/13, 12:41 PM  

Totally agree with you about prize winners, except for the Newbery for kids! But I also feel the same way about 5 star restaurants - they don't have food I would want to eat in any event!

Kailana 12/5/13, 12:58 PM  

I am the same way. I think that is why when I am at my peak reading levels I generally read obscure novels... I am curious about this book, but it is not something I feel I am missing out on if I don't get around to it. The only awards I pay attention to are the Giller and the Governor General and that is just because I live in Canada. :)

Anonymous,  12/5/13, 1:42 PM  

I'm glad you reviewed this - I keep seeing it pop up on the end-of-the-year "best of" lists, and I was wondering about it. Now I know it's probably not something I'd enjoy.

Swapna 12/5/13, 3:23 PM  

I'm wondering if this one might have been more effective in print. Award winners are hit or miss with me too.

Elizabeth Bevins 12/5/13, 3:25 PM  

Sometimes those award winners are not award winners for "real" readers. I have this on my to read list because I've heard so much about it but I won't hesitate to put it down if it doesn't grab me.

Thanks for your insightful review.

Vasilly 12/5/13, 6:23 PM  

Wow. I've been meaning to read The Luminaries but after reading your review, I'll pass.

Sandy Nawrot 12/6/13, 6:27 AM  

I have terrible luck with prize winners. I'm not sure I want to know why...are they too deep for me? Too smart? I don't know. I'm also put off by the size, I'm sorry to say. I'll only invest that amount of time when I'm sure it will pay off.

(Diane) bookchickdi 12/6/13, 7:50 AM  

Add my name to the list of people who haven't had much luck with major prize winners too. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

Daryl 12/6/13, 9:24 AM  

when i read the article about the author after she won the Booker, i was intrigued but it seemed to me from the description that it would be very involved and require more concentration that i am willing to give, given i read in spurts ... thanks for the review

thecuecard 12/6/13, 5:46 PM  

Oh my, how did you get through this one?! I have trouble with long chunkster novels and this one sounds like it could have been chopped a lot shorter. I think award winners are hit and miss eh?

Jenn's Bookshelves 12/9/13, 12:01 PM  

Ahhh...I brought this along on our road trip last week. Never did get a chance to read it. Perhaps that was a sign?

Literary Feline 12/9/13, 12:49 PM  

Prize winners are hit and miss with me. Of course, I can usually tell by what kind of prize the book has won whether I will struggle with it or not (there are always exceptions).

I am sorry this one wasn't better for you.

Sarah (Sarah's Book Shelves) 12/22/13, 3:03 PM  

I have not read The Luminaries, but I am 100% with you on tending to have bad luck with award winners. So much so that I have taken to calling them "Award Losers". Some somewhat recent "Award Losers" for me were The Round House, The Orphan Master's Son, and Wolf Hall.

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