Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Luminaries - Book Review

The Luminaries
by Eleanor Catton

Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize and Canada's Governor General's Literary Award, a breathtaking feat of storytelling where everything is connected, but nothing is as it seems....

It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have men in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

This is an intimidating book. Weighty in terms of themes, the prestigious prizes it has won, and the clever structuring and style that reflects the planets and the phases of the moon, it is also literally an extremely large book. It’s also a book that seems to have divided opinions considerably, so I was very interested to see what I would make of it.

The story begins with the arrival of Walter Moody in Hokitika, New Zealand, in 1866. He walks in on a meeting of twelve men at the Crown Hotel, and is soon pulled into their discussion of a series of events, and of the sinister man who seems to be behind it all somehow: Francis Carver.

This section of the novel immediately drew me in; mysterious events, a group of such different characters all driven together by fate, a historical setting and a fascinating look into a New Zealand Gold Rush town – all great elements! The events themselves are related in a slightly odd way; each person describes what they experienced to Moody. This isn’t related in direct speech from the person telling their tale, but described in third person as a summary of the events they have just told to Moody. Within these stories, other characters might tell their own story, sometimes also related in third person rather than direct speech. This can become quite confusing, particularly if listening to the audiobook, as it is harder to flick back to find out whose point of view we are seeing events from, and because events are often told in the narrator’s voice rather than a recognisable character’s voice. This isn’t a fault with the audiobook, but is a result of the slightly odd way that the story is related in the beginning section. There are also moments where the reader appears to have been given more information than Moody has been told – for example, would a man describing to another man something that happened to him really break off mid story to deeply analyse another person’s character?

After the meeting of the men at the Crown Hotel, the story continues and slowly little things begin to be revealed as the chain of events is unravelled. It becomes clear that every detail mentioned in the story is significant, that everything ties in to the greater story that’s being told. This is extremely well planned and executed, and I really enjoyed seeing all the different threads pulling together. This doesn’t happen all at once, at the end of the book, but steadily and surely throughout the story. It’s carefully and brilliantly done.

The sheer amount of characters in this book is a little confusing to begin with. I had a hard time keeping track of who was who, something that is a bigger problem in the audiobook because you can’t flip to the front for the cast of characters. Thankfully, the narrator is very skilled at giving each character a distinct voice, so though I couldn’t always remember at first what a specific person’s background and profession was, I always knew exactly who was speaking. The large cast of characters becomes a strength later on in the story once the reader has wrapped their head around who is who, much like in something like Game of Thrones, where the interactions and connections between different people, the little co-incidences, and being able to see a situation from all sides, really brings the whole thing to life. Unfortunately, some characters were more rounded out than others, and some who were explored deeply at the beginning were almost forgotten later. In the end, perhaps there simply were too many people for one book to deal with.

The main characters are each connected to a celestial body, astrology being an important theme running through the novel. This was clever, but I do wish the author had let the reader assess each character for themselves through the characters’ actions, rather than suddenly breaking the story each time a new person was introduced in order to describe their disposition, hopes and dreams and character traits in extensive detail.

The structure of the novel was another aspect that reflected the movements of the heavens, in this case the phases of the moon. The early chapters start off very long, becoming shorter and shorter in proportion to the waning of the moon until the final chapters are mere slivers of the beginning sections. This structure is alluded to on the front cover of the book. I really liked this and thought it was a clever touch, but there were some points where the story perhaps suffered a bit from the need to stick to this structure. Most notably this was in the middle, where the story began to drag a bit, for me, and at the very end, where the chapters were so short the introductory sentences at the beginning of each one had to sum up all the events, telling us rather than showing us what happened.

However, what I did love about this approach was the strong fatalistic feeling that this connection with the heavens gave to the story. There are also many references to the paranormal – ghosts, séances, astrology, visions, weird connections between people. Even the name ‘Crown Hotel’ has associations with Dracula. I loved these aspects, and I particularly liked how many of the stranger happenings were explained logically, but not in a way that entirely convinced, or that wrapped up everything. For example, the strange connection between two characters was still a little mysterious, and I don’t think Moody’s vision at the beginning was ever really explained. This leaves the reader with the feeling that there are still mysteries in the world, and forces that move us beyond our control.

The Luminaries is an interesting book, different in many ways from things I’ve read before. I appreciated the clever structure reflecting the themes and ideas in the story, as well as the possible supernatural elements and the feeling of fate guiding the characters’ interactions. I do think the book was too long and that the story would have benefited from some cuts, especially in the middle section, and in some places the book was perhaps a little too clever for its own good. But overall this is a fascinating and impressive read in which everything is connected and all events pull together into a satisfying ending. The narrator reads the audiobook extremely well and I really enjoyed listening to it!

I received a review copy of this audiobook in exchange for an honest review.

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