Review: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

The LuminariesThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve often said art is subjective. The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, is certainly a prime example of that adage. Winner of the Booker Prize for 2013, lauded, praised, esteemed by critics and readers alike, I was prepared for this literary whodunnit to amaze and delight. Unfortunately, for me, I felt like the child in the Emperor’s New Clothes fable, pointing at Catton’s naked majesty while others apparently better informed praised their mighty leader for the beauty of her raiment.

So, then, what was it that failed to impress? Certainly the concept of carrying the plot through multiple characters with an unreliable narrator’s voice is a known, respected and often brilliant literary device. Sequencing back and forth through time periods is also a respected and often brilliant literary device. Using astrological charts to preface every section of the novel was a touch of ingenuity, albeit one lost on a reader unfamiliar with the nuances and language of astrology. Including phrases of Cantonese and Maori is also laudable, were it not for the fact there was no contextual reference to give weight and meaning to the phrases so that they became nothing more than white noise.

The execution of many of these devices was, in my opinion, clumsily handled. The leaping around through time sequences often left me confused, in that there was rarely any linear progression to these sequences, so that one was unsure if we were in 1864, or 1857, or whenever.

The constant recapping of events ended up reading very much like a modern reality TV show, wherein we are told over and over again after each commercial break of disaster past or pending. For the first half of the novel we are endlessly regaled with this person’s experience of a particular event and relationship to a particular background character, only to be followed by another chapter from a different person’s perspective, and so on, and so forth for about twelve chapters. After about the third viewpoint I’m afraid I started to go a bit tharn, much like one of Richard Adam’s unwitting bunnies.

Character development ended up feeling somewhat flat because of the cool distance of the voice of the unreliable narrator, and sometimes I had to wonder if Catton was in fact attempting to write farce instead of an historical mystery.

Catton chooses to open each chapter with a 19th century literary device by way of a synopsis of what is about to unfold, which is fine, up to a point, which I will reference later.

The denouement, which occurs somewhere around the two thirds mark, ended without resolution because although court sentence is passed upon villainous and guilty parties, we never really are given a complete resolution of the mystery, or what is to happen as a result, and instead the latter third of the novel again transports the reader to various, disparate points in the past.

And here we return again to the synopsis which prefaces each chapter, in that in those last chapter the synopses, which employ run-on sentences and breathless writing, end up becoming the narrative or story, with the actual events of the chapter little more than a few paragraphs of some almost irrelevant vignette. And these chapters hurtle on in a race, almost as if Catton wished done with the novel, to the point of being little more than drafts.

The last chapter is astonishing, with its verbose synopsis and sudden end of the novel through a declaration of one lover to another that she can hear the rain, something apparently extraordinary in New Zealand which has been portrayed as very wet, with near constant rain. One might better declare she can see the sun, that she is transported by the light, because certainly the novel failed any kind of transport of the imagination, and, instead, very much called to mind one reviewer’s comment that The Luminaries was a big box full of nothing.

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