Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Luminaries: "There is no truth except truth in relation."

I am utterly awestruck by Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries. It's a feat of storytelling unlike anything I've ever experienced with a novel before — a meticulously constructed plot that circles itself, folds back upon itself, but then ultimately snaps to a satisfying and coherent conclusion, like a piece of origami or an ornate string trick.

That is to say, it's not an easy read. But as I wrote yesterday for Book Riot, I like a challenge! The Luminaries isn't difficult because it's incomprehensible. It's difficult because Catton asks a lot of her readers in terms of keeping plot lines and characters (some of whom have aliases) straight in your mind. I took notes (which you can access here, if you're interested in taking on this novel) to try to keep everything straight — and it actually worked.

Let me give you some more specifics. When the novel opens, it's January 1866, and we're in the small gold rush town on the West coast of New Zealand called Hokitika. A guy named Walter Moody has just come ashore hoping to hit it big. He stumbles upon a meeting of 12 men at a hotel, and they begin to tell him a story.

The story is about a drunk hermit named Crosbie Wells who was found dead two weeks prior in his cabin amidst a massive fortune of gold. On the same night, an opium-addicted whore named Anna Wetherell was found face down in a mud puddle, and subsequently arrested for trying to kill herself. Each of the 12 men at the meeting is connected to both of these events, as our several other characters, including a shady ship captain named Carver and a smarmy politician named Lauderback. Each has his own perspective on what may have happened and why, but each man's motivation for solving the mysteries is different because of each man's own interests, desires, hopes, and perhaps most importantly, pasts.

Along the way, strings are slowly untangled, more characters are introduced, a love story becomes evident, more plots are revealed, and each of the 12 men learns the others' involvement, and tries to decide who to trust and who to suspect. At one point, a character tells another: "You say only a weak mind puts faith in coincidences. But a string of coincidences cannot be a coincidence!"

That's the rub — what appears to be coincidence (or misfortune or serendipity) surely is not. At about the halfway point of the novel, many of the pieces fall into place, and you kind of just put the book down and wonder how Catton did this. And then you still have half a novel to go! It's amazing. It really is.

I realize that doesn't give you an incredible amount about the plot, but it really is impossible to summarize in fewer than about 5,000 words. And this doesn't even take into account another aspect of the novel — the fact each chapter starts with an astrology chart (one example is pictured to the left), with each character on the edges, and the placement of the sun, moon and planets. Each character's personality traits and part in the plot is somehow related to these charts, I assume. But I'm not going to lie, I didn't spend any time trying to figure this out. It was enough to keep the plot straight.

Even a Booker Prize judge, in this fantastic, insightful interview published on Book Riot — this novel won this year's Booker Prize, the longest novel ever to win, and Catton at 28 years old is the youngest novelist to win — acknowledges that this novel takes a few re-readings, each with a different focus, to wring out all the meaning.

So I don't know exactly whether to recommend this or not — despite its genius, it's a novel that probably has limited appeal. Readers who try to speed through it will likely be frustrated and annoyed by it. Whatever the opposite of a beach/plane read is, this is it. For me, I enjoyed the two weeks I spent with it, but I enjoyed it more so because I was in awe of how the story was constructed than that I was captivated by the story itself.


  1. I don't think I have the patience for this one sadly.

  2. A very succinct review. I want to read this, just because it is a ToB contender, but am unsure that I actually will. If I do, I'm happy I'll have your notes to guide me along. And I'll know to take my time with it and concentrate. Thank you!

    1. Give it a try! It's definitely a fiction-reader's piece of fiction!

  3. If this one hadn't been on my wish list already, I would have added it after your first paragraph. I was listening to the Book Riot podcast and knew I wanted to make sure to grab your notes when I start it.

  4. I've just started reading The Luminaries, primarily based upon your review. Thanks for the notes! I think that they will be helpful. While reading two very well-written long novels this past year (The Crimson Petal and the White and The Goldfinch), I realized that I love these books. It's satisfying to lose yourself in a book for a week or ten days. As long as it's one worth the trip. The Luminaries also interests me because of the time period and the setting.