Saturday 16 June 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton (2013)

The Luminaries is the kind of novel that makes people uncomfortable (and not just due to its sheer size!). It pushes readers, rather than spoon-feeding them. It breaks many of the rules adhered to by aspiring writers (there are by some counts 19 protagonists—try selling that one to your creative writing professors). And, above all else, it plays with our love of logic—the reasoning and deduction that appeals to fans of mystery and detective fiction—while threatening this with a structure based on the astrological and a conclusion leaning towards the mystical.

Many of the negative reviews of the novel which you can find on Goodreads and Amazon (which aren’t nearly as numerous as those glowing with praise for this Man Booker winner) sound closer to break up letters. Reviewers tell the book they’re not sure if “it’s you or me”. They’re worried that they’ve failed a test, that they’re not the readers they thought they were, that they’ve missed the point.

Eleanor Catton (1985-)
But, as with most novels, The Luminaries, while a monumental achievement, has strengths and weaknesses. Whether you’ll enjoy the novel as much as I did depends on the value you ascribe to each area:

Many of us read historical fiction to be transported to a different place and time and Catton has a wonderful setting in 1860s Hokitika in New Zealand. There are many tropes of the nineteenth-century doorstopper here, in a novel more complex than Dickens’s Bleak House and with multiple narrators as in Collins’s The Woman in White, but the unique setting opens up new possibilities for a cast of gold-diggers, prospectors, politicians, prostitutes, all trying to make it in a new world, greater diversity, with Maori and Chinese characters as well as British transplants, and a spectacular natural backdrop to a very human drama.

Catton is a master of plotting. I’d give anything to see her outline document! If you love to puzzle out novels, obsess over the course of events in the podcast Serial, even draw out your own timelines to keep events straight, this novel might be for you. If not, it won’t be. This novel doesn’t go easy on the casual reader. Skim one sentence and you might miss something. Revelations aren’t repeated or greeted with fanfare.

Pacing and Structure
The structure of The Luminaries is one of its most distinctive features, with parts decreasing in length as the novel progresses to mirror the waning of the moon. The characters act and interact in accordance with the star signs and other astrological bodies they represent, with the star charts preceding each section bringing another dimension to the reading experience. This is all very interesting but the victim of this grand design is the novel’s pacing. The first section is overly long and it takes too much time for any pieces to fall together. The language and the promise of the magic to come was what kept me reading but I can understand why some might have lost their patience. Once the pace picks up so did my reading. It probably took me half the time to read the final 600 pages, than the first 300.

This was one of the most puzzling aspects of the novel for me. The astrological framework provides a distinct basis for each of Catton’s characters and yet they often didn’t feel differentiated enough. Bizarrely, I got more of a sense of personality when we weren’t in that character’s point of view, making me wonder if the omniscient narrative intrusions were keeping us at a distance from those whose heads we were meant to be in. In Victorian style, characters’ traits are described but I rarely saw them acted out in a memorable way. If your favourite thing about fiction is rooting for a hero or heroine you won’t find that here, but it wasn’t the lack of sympathetic protagonist that bothered me—rather the characters felt more like pieces on a chessboard than fully realised human beings.

The Luminaries is beautifully written. Long as the novel was I found myself rereading stellar sentences and pausing to marvel at Catton’s turns of phrase. The voice is simultaneously an homage to nineteenth-century fiction and fresh, bringing something new to our bookshelves. We often hear the maxim that literary fiction is character-driven, but The Luminaries proves the power of plot-driven literary writing.

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

1 comment:

  1. A good summing up of the strengths and weaknesses of this book. I read it not long after it came out and what's stayed with me the most was how fascinating I found the setting -- a time and place I knew nothing about. Catton vividly creates 19th-century gold rush New Zealand for us: its beauty and strangeness and peril. I was also very impressed by the plotting, yet I, too, found it hard to get close to the characters or care too much about what happened to them. They did indeed seem like figures on a chessboard.