Haunting Book: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

This month I’m writing another series of book reviews on “haunting books.” I haven’t read that many really good mysteries or thrillers by new authors this year, though I recommend to readers that you try any book by Tana French (see review of In the Woods here) or William Landry (see review of Defending Jacob here). Therefore, my reviews won’t necessarily be of haunting books in the traditional sense. But they are reviews of books that have stuck with me for some reason.

luminaries coverMy first “haunting book” post this year is on The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2013. I first heard about The Luminaries last fall, about the time it won the Booker award. It sounded intriguing—a story of New Zealand during its Gold Rush years in the 1860s. I was hard at work drafting my novel about the California Gold Rush in the 1840s. Could The Luminaries offer me any inspiration?

But I was daunted by the 800+ page length of Catton’s novel. My reading time was limited, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to so long a book. When I start a book, I intend to finish it.

I put my name on the hold list for The Luminaries at my local library—both for the hard copy version and for the ebook—and waited. My name came up shortly before Christmas, and I checked it out.

When my son came home for Christmas, I had just started reading the book. He was also reading it for his book club and was further along in the story than I was. He raved about how wonderful the novel was, so I got more serious about plowing through it.

The book starts out conventionally enough. A stranger comes to town on a dark and stormy night and insinuates himself into a suspicious group. It could have been an Agatha Christie mystery. But such was not the case.

I could tell as I read that there was a complicated structure to the book—a structure so complicated it was beyond my abilities to fathom as a reader or a writer. I read that Catton based her novel’s structure on the zodiac and astrological symbols. Each character was designed to represent either one of the twelve zodiac signs or a planet. Supposedly, the characters interact based on the relative movements of the constellations in the heavens, and the decreasing length of the chapters corresponds to the waning of the moon.

I know nothing about astrology (beyond reading my daily horoscope for amusement), and I didn’t understand any links between the characters and the zodiac signs or planets. Even when I read that Te Rau Tauwhare, the Maori native, was linked to Aries, for example, I still didn’t know what to make of it. The star charts for each chapter were meaningless to me.

So I read the book as a murder mystery set in an intriguing time and place. I learned about the Hokitika goldfields in New Zealand in the 1860s, and had a good time doing so.

The prose in the book was lovely. The plot was intriguing. But it started off so dang slow. I like a book—particularly a murder mystery, which The Luminaries is at heart—to move quickly. As has been widely reported, the first chapter in this book is 360+ pages.

The novel is dark, like watching a movie filmed mostly in shadows. The characters are grim and tortured. But I still enjoyed the book. The pace picked up after I got through the grueling first chapter.

It took me a couple of months to read the book, rotating from hard copy to ebook, depending on my library’s check-out demands. At one point, I had to stop for a couple of weeks, when I had to return the copy I had and no other version was available.

A more committed reader would have purchased the book.

Nevertheless, despite the slow trudging that reading The Luminaries required, the novel makes my “haunting book” list for several reasons:

  • My awe at Catton’s ability to structure such a complicated book and still make it a good story. As I said, I could tell something was going on with the book’s structure, though I couldn’t understand it. Nevertheless, it was a good read, despite its length.
  • The Dickensian prose, detailed and lush and often macabre, which painted a picture of unfamiliar lives and times. I’ve read many Victorian novels by Dickens and others. The Luminaries is reminiscent of them in style, but the complex structure of the book takes it out of the Victorian genre.
  • The history, which taught me about New Zealand’s colonial days and the Hokitika goldfields, the harshness of gold digging in the mid-nineteeth century, and the intricacies of English law. Who knew property, inheritance, and shipping laws could be so intriguing?
  • The characters, each compelling in his or her own way, from the opium-addicted prostitute to the cruel sea captain to the devious shipping agent. The large cast of characters presented a microcosm of their time and place. I felt that I came away with a feeling for the many classes of people that flocked to New Zealand to seek their fortunes in gold.
  • The plot, which in the end was simply a good murder mystery, with a romance at its core. It had all the twists and turns that a mystery should have, complete with mistaken identities, illegitimate children, forgeries, stolen gold, and betrayals intended and unintended.

I recommend The Luminaries. But set aside a long period in which to read it. And you might even consider buying it.

What long books have you enjoyed?

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