2013 Man Booker Prize Winner: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
A week ago I was singing the praises of this book. Now, having finished, I’m not sure. Wonderful writing, but the plot is like a block of Emmental – more holes than cheese. I suspect this will go down as a Marmite book (or should that be Vegemite?): you’ll either love it or hate it.
Here’s the blurb:
‘It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore 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 patterned as the night sky. The Luminaries is an extraordinary piece of fiction. It is full of narrative, linguistic and psychological pleasures, and has a fiendishly clever and original structuring device. Written in pitch-perfect historical register, richly evoking a mid-19th century world of shipping and banking and goldrush boom and bust, it is also a ghost story, and a gripping mystery. It is a thrilling achievement for someone still in her mid-20s, and will confirm for critics and readers that Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament.’
When I got to the final page (or final few minutes, as I was listening to this on Audible), I thought I’d missed something, skipped a chapter or fallen asleep during the denouement. So I went for a walk and tried to piece some of the parts together in my mind. I tried to remember how each character was linked to the others. Who was who? Where did the gold originate again? And where did it end up? And the gold that was in the 5th dress? And the bullet? Did I miss the explanation of the bullet? Or was the man behind the drape really all there was to it? What about Moody’s father? Did he find him in the end?
Considering I ended up with more questions the more I thought about it, I did the next logical thing – I googled. And I found scores of discussions. So I’m obviously not the only one in a state of confusion.
Sure, I glossed over all the astrological stuff. I thought the deeper significance would be explained. I made no attempt to place the compass points on the map and never knew if they were really relevant. I did get confused between the characters at times. But I really thought the whole story would become clear in the end. But it didn’t.
Despite all that, this was still a hugely satisfying read. How did Eleanor Catton do that? She kept my attention throughout, kept my curiosity tickled, and I had such an enjoyable time. It feels like a great book you read years ago – one that you recommend to everyone, yet, if they ask, you can’t quite remember the story but you remember loving it. The Luminaries just bypasses the stage of actually following the storyline and goes straight to the good memory part of the brain.
So, weirdest review ever: I loved this book despite all the above and would love to read it again.
But I probably won’t because I know I’ll still be scratching my head.
Will I read Eleanor Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal?