The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Title: The Luminaries
Author: Eleanor Catton
Genre: Fiction / historical fiction

Rating: 5 / 5

Goodreads | Powell’s

Goodness gracious, that was a d–n fine book!

I don’t even know where to start, so I guess I’ll start with how the book & I got started. I knew absolutely nothing about this book going in, except: 1) I liked the cover, 2) I liked the title, 3) it had been calling to me ever since I first spied it upon a bookstore shelf in October or November, and 4) it had won the Booker by the time I got around to laying my hands on a copy. I was actually slightly disappointed to realize, shortly after beginning it, that it’s a mystery. However the writing style appealed to me instantly, from the “NOTE TO THE READER” that comes even before the character chart. I didn’t know if I was quite in the mood for a mystery but I was enjoying the writing so much that I decided to let it take me where it wanted. And I am really glad I did, because, like I said, d–n!! I started reading it aloud to Peter when I was only about 10% of the way in–I knew he would be really into the dialogue, and so far he’s liking it a lot. He has already adopted the term “twinkle.” (” ‘What is a twinkle?’ the banker asked. ‘It’s stupid–never mind it!’ “). Now I’m getting to review the entire thing with him and I am really stoked to be rereading it. There is so much here that a few more times through would be rewarding.

The novel has been called “experimental,” and I can definitely see that, but those aspects were not overdone at all; you could read the whole thing without giving much or any thought to what Catton was doing with the astrology aspect. I didn’t even know until I finished the book and looked up reviews and essays that each part was exactly half the word count of the previous part. Not knowing didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book; I don’t feel like I “missed” anything not having known that–however, that information does provide more food for thought in the context of the book’s symbolism. The book is layered that way so well.

There are a lot of characters and it was a bit difficult to keep their names and stories straight, especially at first. But even so, Catton can really draw a character effectively. I could definitely have stood to know more about them all (I love character studies), but it was hardly necessary (and with the book standing at over 800 pages… perhaps not everyone would have been as willing to read more of her gorgeous writing as I). I can see how this wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea; it is not straightforward, linear, neatly tied up, and at times it is even downright illogical. Personally I am often more satisfied by a book that leaves unanswered questions and is somewhat ambiguous than one that scrupulously gathers all its loose ends and ends with explicit tidiness. I also like my grand stories to have something of the preternatural (or even supernatural) in them. So it was quite a good fit for me, but if it doesn’t grab you in the first 50-100 pages, I doubt it’s going to.

I also appreciate that Catton shows Chinese and Maori characters. There are depictions of racism, but the writing is not sympathetic to that racism–she definitely conveys the injustice effectively; the incidents left a really icky, this-is-horribly-wrong feeling in my gut. At the same time, not all the racist characters are demonized (although I can think of at least one who is); they are depicted as normal everyday people who behave in racist ways–which is how things usually play out in real life. This doesn’t mean the behavior is condoned; in one example, the narrator rebukes a character by calling their racist behavior “unforgivably rude.” This aspect of the novel is pretty understated but I definitely noticed it.

All around really well done; I enjoyed it immensely!


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