The Luminaries

The LuminariesThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Publisher: Granta Books
Released: August 24, 2013
Pages: 848
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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 met 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. Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bust, The Luminaries is a brilliantly constructed, fiendishly clever ghost story and a gripping page-turner.

It’s hard to overstate how technically impressive The Luminaries is. It’s over 800 pages of a complicated, intentionally disjointed, ambitious story which is told in a consistent old-English style that adds more to the atmosphere of the whole thing than one would think. It all becomes even more impressive when one considers that the author was only 28 years old when she wrote this. By pretty much any standards it would be impossible not to consider The Luminaries an awesome (in the proper sense of the word) piece of work.
Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I should have done.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in saying that this book is rather harsh on the reader. From page one the reader has to sit through many, many, many, pages of strangers speaking about things of little apparent consequence that happened to other strangers. Of course, it all becomes relevant at some point, but still. I normally appreciate being kept in the dark for the sake of a subsequent big reveal, but there is a limit to how many hours I can enjoy reading what is mostly background to a story that will take place some hundred pages later. For me that limit was reached. I’m not unreasonable though. Had I felt that the rest of the story justified the time it took to get there, I might be inclined to forgive it. I didn’t feel like it did. That’s not to say the story isn’t great. It meshes together an extremely wide range of themes into a story that eventually becomes interesting, very original, and, towards the end, rather thrilling. It just doesn’t become quite interesting or thrilling enough to justify what I felt was the long path I took to get there.

Also, I haven’t written anything about the content of the book. I’m always very careful to avoid spoilers, and in this case I’m honestly not sure what would constitute spoilers and what wouldn’t. On the one hand I could give a three sentence summary of the basic premise. On the other hand I feel that said summary would pretty much cover the first third of the book.

That is not to say I didn’t like the book. Once I got to the meat of it, and it was revealed to me what was actually going on, I did manage to get into it. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if more was revealed a little sooner, or maybe that would ruin the point and the effect of the story entirely. I really don’t know. I just feel that the book really didn’t work for me. On the other hand, considering this is an 800+ page book that really didn’t work for me, the fact that I still quite liked it must count for something.

So I really am torn when it comes to this book. I think the only kind of person I would recommend this to is the kind of person who will probably already have read it. Want a mightily impressive work of art that will challenge you? Go for it. Want a book you can enjoy without pouring what feels like several 10K runs worth of physical effort into reading it? Choose something else.

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