Whilst wondering last month when I was ever going to read ‘The Luminaries’, a thought suddenly occurred to me: what better time to start reading an 800+ page book than the beginning of up to five days of London Underground strikes? I have an eBook copy of Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning epic novel and I tend to use my Kindle when bad weather, industrial action or some other disruption is likely to severely delay my commute to work. An e-reader is easier to hold on a crowded train than a large hardback book and if I get stranded somewhere for a long time and I finish a novel, I have several more to choose from right there and then.
In the end, it took just under eight return journeys between Essex and North London and a bank holiday weekend for me to read ‘The Luminaries’. Set in New Zealand in the 1860s, the novel opens with Walter Moody setting out to make his fortune in the gold mining town of Hokitika. He meets a group of twelve men who are attempting to solve the mysteries of some unexplained events, namely the death of a hermit called Crosbie Wells, the attempted suicide of Anna Wetherell, the mysterious disappearance of Emery Staines and the location of five dresses with a fortune of gold stitched into them.
As with Donna Tartt’s 770 page novel ‘The Goldfinch‘ which I read between Christmas and New Year, the one thing you cannot ignore about either of these books is their considerable size. Overall, I would say it’s best not to start reading ‘The Luminaries’ half-heartedly. It’s difficult to dip in and out sporadically of any long novel and this one is no exception. While ‘The Goldfinch’ goes more or less straight into the action, the opening of ‘The Luminaries’ is very slow with a vast amount of background information and a large cast of main characters. I would advise readers to set aside a fair amount of time to get through the lengthy descriptions of these characters and how they are intricately connected.
As well as its length, the structure of ‘The Luminaries’ based on astrology has also been widely commented on. The book is divided into twelve parts associated with the signs of the zodiac and the twelve main characters with each part being half the length of the previous one. Before reading it, I had wondered if the quality or pace of the story would suffer at the expense of Catton attempting to stick to this rigid pattern whereby characters come and go according to planetary movements. While it has the effect of making the book feel rather unbalanced with the first of twelve parts taking up nearly half of the book and the final part comprising of just a few short paragraphs, I would say that although it is complex and non-linear, the structure here is at least slightly more coherent and definitely more confidently executed than that of Catton’s debut novel ‘The Rehearsal‘.
There is a helpful summary of events at the end of Part One where it is acknowledged that: “Balfour’s narrative, made somewhat circuitous by interruption, and generally encumbered by the lyrical style of that man’s speech, became severely muddled in the telling, and several hours passed before Moody finally understood with clarity the order of events that had precipitated the secret council in the hotel smoking room.” In other words, it’s been a bit of a slog so far. Fortunately, after reaching this important milestone, the pace picks up and the story becomes a bit easier to grasp. On the other hand, I still felt that the structure of ‘The Luminaries’ remained a distraction from the story itself which is unfortunate as the writing is consistently excellent and there is much to be admired stylistically. In particular, the nineteenth century voice is very convincing and the courtroom scenes are highly compelling to read.
‘The Luminaries’ is undoubtedly a very cleverly constructed novel. More often than not, however, I would say that the ambitious structure hinders rather than helps ‘The Luminaries’ in terms of the actual experience of reading it. Whether you gave up after 200 pages or finished the entire novel (either through sheer determination or genuine enjoyment), I am interested in hearing your thoughts.