I really wanted to love The Luminaries. Eleanor Catton is the youngest person ever to win the Booker at 28, and that’s an astounding achievement. But I’m going to commit a literary taboo, and admit to being disappointed.
My reading got off to a very promising start, with some insightful snippets of characterisation. The kind of thing you want to underline, because it really rings true. Here’s a few examples:
‘Like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior.’
‘His education had made him insular, for it had taught him that the proper way to understand any social system was to view it from above.’
‘As a child he had known instinctively that it was always better to tell a partial truth with a willing aspect than to tell a perfect truth in a defensive way. The appearance of co-operation was worth a great deal, if only because it forced a reciprocity, fair met with fair.’
About a quarter of the way through this 832-page tome, though, I faltered.
In between the flashes of insight, the novel pans out to a vast cast of characters, none of whom I could find it in my heart to care about. There are too many of them, but more importantly, not enough attention is paid to each one. I couldn’t identify with them.
The plot difficult to follow. That wouldn’t be such a problem – it wasn’t for War and Peace – but there was something else lacking. The vast expanse of characters and plot twists felt needlessly complicated. It didn’t feel like the action was driven by the characters; the whole thing felt contrived.
It didn’t help that, in the midst of the 1866 New Zealand goldfields and the old timey language and period dress, there are lapses into 21st century Americanisms. It’s jarring to hear that a 19th century British character is ‘done’ doing something, in amongst the more age-appropriate dialogue.
All the while, the plot trundles mindlessly on, with its many ducks and dives. There’s intrigue, there’s two potential murders emerging, and there are many many potential culprits. But I’m still not interested. Life’s too short to read bad books. I’m sorry, Eleanor.