The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

cover-the-luminariesNew Zealand 1865. A gold rush is underway and many an entrepreneurial spirit has arrived to seek his fortune. Thirteen men gather in a backroom tavern. A plot is afoot. A missing prospector, a found fortune, a dead hermit, an opium-addled whore. Each man has a secret, a piece of the puzzle. Like a ball of yarn unraveling, each thread is parceled out piecemeal, over hundreds and hundreds of pages. The Luminaries is honestly nothing but a ponderously slow reveal. And It’s actually pretty good for it.

The cast are like chess pieces. Not checker pieces, mind you — they are easily distinguishable. But like the old westerns the book occasionally evokes (even having one character go so far as to reference such), they can be summed up as the banker, the lawyer, the preacher, the miner, the dandy. They have a handful of defining traits that are meticulously described in their introductory chapters. There is little mystery to each, and you know them more by their descriptors than their actions. Indeed, it’s a rare case of tell over show succeeding. And even with 800+ pages, there’s still not time for each. The hotelier and chemist especially draw the short straws for narrative space.

Imagine a man juggling. Balls, fruit, pots, and pans, whatever. In your minds eye, keep on adding things for him to juggle. Torches, toy trains, gerbils. And so on. Add a chair. A spare tire. An impressive array all in the air at once, but still just a man juggling. It’s not going to change your life. But it is entertaining. This is The Luminaries. It is amazing that Eleanor Catton manages to keep the ball rolling without losing steam[1]. While the plot is sort of wrapped off, there is no real payoff. There is no grand theme waiting to be revealed. Or much depth to be ferreted out of the text in its entirety.

It has the veneer of a Victorian novel, but this is slight and mostly a framing device. It doesn’t truly dive into the form like say, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel does. The book follows a rigid astrological structure that all but the most star-obsessed enthusiasts (or wikipedia divers) will be able to comprehend. There’s astrology charts. It’s sort of Georges Perec-lite. I didn’t understand any of it. Apparently the charts predict the characters’ actions?

I know I am giving off a lukewarm impression of this book. This is not my intention. I enjoyed it a great deal. It’s a big, fun story — the sort very dear to the heart of someone once immersed in doorstopper fantasy novels. There is just not anything terribly groundbreaking or memorable beyond that.

1. It’s not entirely true the novel never loses steam, and the telling will involve a slight spoiler. Somewhere in the 6-700 page range, the main story wraps up and the final bits are a laborious piece of backstory filling the last few remaining holes in the story. I dislike this as a device. If flashbacks are going to enter the story late, I’d prefer them either short or with a plot of their own worth following rather than a second-fiddle-reveal to the present. The chapters drastically shorten at this point, however, likely due to the astrological structure’s trickery, and the last 100-200 pages speed by much quicker than the previous 600 do. Back

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