In a word: Heck.
This book is the definition of the word monster. 832 pages divided into astrologically sequenced chapters. A considerable sum of major characters, a plot that covers more ground than a frightened rabbit, and a story that arrives at its conclusion an entirely different book than the one you started reading.
I was wary, but I also went in with great determination. I wanted to like this book. I wanted it to end up on my favourites list. It won the Man Booker in 2013, so I figured it would be worth taking the time over. Usually I’m reluctant to start anything over 600 pages unless I am confident it will be time well spent, but with this one I took a punt, which kind of paid off.
The Luminaries is a good book. Overall it has more beauty spots than blemishes, but whether it is as fantastic as its accolades suggest is a debatable point.
We’ll start with the pleasantries.
Catton is obviously a skilled writer. Her prose is beautiful. She crafts her language with such effortless grace that it reads like this is her twentieth book. Snippets of insight into the characters’ psychologies and lovely literary flourishes give this book sophistication and personality. There are moments that read with particular sharpness, such as:
‘Walter Moody did not chastise himself for intrusions upon other people’s privacy, and nor did he see any reason to confess them. His mind was of a most phlegmatic sort, cool in its private applications, quick, and excessively rational; he possessed a fault common to those of high intelligence, however, which was that he tended to regard the gift of his intellect as a licence of a kind, by whose rarefied authority he was protected, in all circumstances, from ever behaving ill.’
This is a well-crafted novel, and personally I find it impressive that Catton managed to carry off such a large number of significant characters. In terms of skill, technical precision and detail, I really appreciated this book. I think it is brave and clever. Sometimes I find historical settings can give a novel a syrupy, research-heavy density, but this book manages to keep the setting in the background whilst maintaining realism.
I short, I stand in awe of Catton’s much-deserved success. At 28 she has written a book I think most authors probably wouldn’t have the skill to tackle in their sixties.
And I would have given it five stars. I really would. Only…
This book takes a while to get going. Oh, my word.
I don’t usually mind slow narratives. I’m sympathetic to plot-lines that meander along, exploring the world, but something must happen. With this one, it would be a stretch to say that anything had happened by page 500! By the time I was over halfway I was still waiting for this novel to really get going, which is unforgivable.
I am of the view that a fantastic final third to a book cannot redeem the sins of a mediocre first half, which is a shame, because the last third of this novel is brilliant. There is intrigue, romance, plot twists galore, and the ending rounds things off in a full and pleasing circle.
The last third I enjoyed to the extent that this one was hard to review, but the crux of it is a question: would I read this book again?
No. The Luminaries only has power in the first read. I can’t say I read everything that was short-listed for the 2013 Booker, so I don’t know what competition this book was up against, but I am surprised that it received such high praise. My impression was that it is good, but not a stunner.
However, if asked whether I recommend this book?
The answer is absolutely. In places The Luminaries is unique and beautiful. It takes a lot of soldiering through mud to get to the good parts, but the good parts are, in my opinion, well worth getting to.