‘the luminaries’ by eleanor catton

***UPDATE! As those of you with your fingers on the literary pulse will likely already know, Eleanor Catton has taken home this year’s Man Booker Prize, which is a ridiculously huge honour, and all of the NZ literary community is pretty much on cloud nine. Either way, if you’re unsure about whether you want to undertake the massive read that is The Luminaries, then hopefully my review below may sway you.***

Front page review of The Luminaries by yours truly on the University Bookshop Ltd (aka the biggest academic bookshop presence in New Zealand) website! AKA my workplace, but still… We’ve only just instated these online staff pick reviews, and I was first pick, so that’s quite satisfying! Read on – and seriously consider buying a copy. The trade paperback is lovely, but the hardback is absolutely gorgeous, and worthy of the splurge, I feel. I’ve mentioned this book a couple of times before, so some points may sound familiar.

Anyway, it reads as follows –

The word Dickensian has been thrown around with regard to Eleanor Catton’s sophomore release, The Luminaries, and it’s certainly got the Victorian grittiness – and impressive page count – that one would expect from any decent Dickens novel. But it’s so much more than that. Catton may only be in her late twenties, but her ability to enter into the minds of the multitude of key characters – almost all male, from all kinds of ethnic, social and moral backgrounds – is staggering. The descriptions of Hokitika and the surrounding lands are beautifully evocative, the constant presence at the beginning of chapters of an omniscient narrator feels like a reassuring indicator that the mysteries will all unfold. And Catton’s ability to stick to period style writing and editing in a completely believable fashion is ‘d—ned’ impressive.

Despite the book’s length, you are drawn into the various mysteries at hand almost immediately, and between the evocative writing and the constant unraveling of the mysterious strands of stories, it’s thoroughly unputdownable. It’s a historical novel, a mystery, with a touch of the fantastical (the omnipresent references to the zodiac) – all by a young contemporary New Zealand author, whose future works will have the world’s attention. Highly, highly recommended.

The best historical mystery about Hokitika that there ever was or will be.
The best historical mystery about Hokitika that there ever was or will be.

To further elaborate – I was constrained by word/space requirements, naturally – I was overall a big fan of the book. That being said, I do think that I preferred The Rehearsal to The Luminaries – and perhaps that’s just my genre preferences coming through, not to mention 300 and something pages verses over 800 – but given that The Rehearsal is possibly my favourite conventional ‘contemporary fiction’ book, that’s a difficult honour to top. So many authors these days are either good story makers or good writers (especially the former) – but not necessarily both. Eleanor Catton is, most assuredly, both of these things. There’s always a storyline to weave the beautiful language around, rather than just to exist for beautiful language’s sake (for which there is a time and a place, but I’d argue that’s something that should generally be reserved for poetry and short prose rather than a fully fledged novel).

Back to the story itself though – one of my favourite aspects of the novel, beyond the overarching story and the writing, was the character development. No character was truly left unexplored – and virtually every man and woman had some varied shades of morality in them – except, perhaps, for the villainous Francis Carver, who was pretty much straight up nasty.

Having visited the West Coast – though not for at least a decade (being able to write that makes me feel so very old) – I am somewhat familiar with the environment being written about, particularly since we had a family jaunt to ‘Shantytown’, a West Coast tourist attraction that is set up like a 19th century gold mining town that’s about half an hour up the coast from Hokitika. But even without that experience, I love the way Catton conjures up the ramshackle, wild environment that these people were living in. It’s known as a bit of a grim, rainy place, rough of weather and of sea, and there’s certainly no lack of that feeling in the book.

The integration of astrology into the book is an interesting element that I feel is reason enough alone for a re-read – I sort of want to work my way through it slowly with some sort of reference book or Wikipedia open to sort out what all the references mean – and I know I’m not alone with that sentiment. As with many books of its girth, the initial read through is all too skimmed through in parts, as there’s just so much to get through – particularly when there is mystery involved. To explicitly have something like the astrological connections fuels the desire to reread and absorb more to an even greater extent than usual, because it does feel as if a whole other layer of meaning may have been lost to the layperson reader.
Overall, it’s truly a triumph – so get your greedy book-fiend paws on a copy now. I really do recommend getting a physical copy, it’s so satisfying and gorgeous (did I mention the beauty of the end papers in the hardback?? they are stunning – at least in the NZ version by Victoria University Press, I’ve no idea what the Granta or Little, Brown ones are like I’m afraid) but it is available in ebook format too – meBooks is a great source for NZ ebooks, with both epub and Kindle formats available. Physical copies are available through all regular retailers – UBS, obviously, as linked at the beginning, but if you’re overseas, try below at Indie Bound to support independent bookshops! Or, if you’re super attached to Amazon, then you can get it there too.


The Luminaries

At the time of writing this, we are two days out from the final Booker prize announcement, and Catton is the favourite of some sources. I’ll be sure to update with the details – even if she doesn’t take home the prize this year, to be nominated at such a young age (born in 1985!) is a coup in itself. And there will hopefully be many more thought-provoking and superbly executed books where this one came from.

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