Eleanor Catton is an extraordinary writer. Her first novel, The Rehearsal, ...had the reader's mind spinning with the complexities of its narrative invention.... The Luminaries is every bit as exciting. Apparently a classic example of 19th-century narrative, set in the 19th century...the project twists into another shape altogether as we read, and continue to read. The book is massive—weighing in at a mighty 832 pages. But every sentence of this intriguing tale set on the wild west coast of southern New Zealand during the time of its goldrush is expertly written, every cliffhanger chapter-ending making us beg for the next to begin. The Luminaries has been perfectly constructed as the consummate literary page-turner..
It is, in this way, a very old-fashioned book; one that rightfully respects the joy it imparts with each of its many small revelations. And it is this sheer rip-roaring readability, perhaps, that could work against it when the Booker Prize comes to be handed out. Yes it's big. Yes it's clever. But do yourself a favor and read The Luminaries before someone attempts to confine its pleasures to the screen, big or small. It may not be the thing to say these days, but this is a story written to be absorbed from the page.
Catton matches her telling to her 19th-century setting, indulging us with straightforward character appraisals, moral estimations of each character along with old-fashioned rundowns of their physical attributes, a gripping plot that is cleverly unravelled to its satisfying conclusion, a narrative that from the first page asserts that it is firmly in control of where it is taking us. Like the 19th-century novels it emulates, The Luminaries plays on Fortune’s double meaning – men chasing riches, and the grand intertwining of destinies.
But there is a problem with characterisation, especially in a novel of this size. While Anna and Lydia stand out easily enough, the men do not. Catton has a tendency to establish characters by summarising their appearance in a long paragraph, then by giving us another long paragraph to expound on their moral views or emotional predilections. This is scarcely enough.... Catton writes with real sophistication and intelligence, so this weak characterisation is at odds with the rest of the novel, its intricate plotting and carefully wrought scenes. Can it be part of her subversion of the 19th-century narrative? I suspect not – but with a talent like Catton’s, one can never be too sure.
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