Friday, 18 October 2013

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

I had a big ambitious series of posts planned for last week, where I'd cover the entire Man Booker Prize shortlist. Unfortunately, university and, to be frank, laziness meant I didn't actually, really, properly read the shortlist. I read half, which is better than last year, as well as a few from the longlist. I'm sure I'll put up reviews soon of those I read (see if you can guess) but luckily I devoted a lot of time to the longest book on the shortlist which ended up being the winner, as I guessed it would be. So, what did I actually think of it?

Well, as I said I felt that the second book from Eleanor Catton was most likely to win. This is mostly to do with the sheer ambition of the book. The 800 odd page novel begins with Walter Moody accidentally interrupting a secret meeting between a group of gentleman with a story to tell. Before he can tell it though, he finds himself involved in the investigation of a number of mysterious events: a murder, a suicide attempt, disappearances and stolen money.

It is impossible to ignore the sheer length of the book but far from off-putting, Catton uses it expertly to create a sprawling epic. Following various characters each with their own story at various points in time, it is impossible not to admire the sheer skill Catton has. Every character is memorable with detailed and vivid characterisation, and very quickly you are able to tell each character apart and not muddle them up into a bunch of caricatures. Catton uses the complex and lengthy narrative to flesh out every area of the characters which massively benefits as the story unfolds.

The intricate links and connections of the stories are expertly done. She avoids giving ll the information straight out but teases enough out for you to feel very clever when you spot a link. Rather than a dull world building exercise, the book is an engrossing mystery which explores Catton's version of 1866 New Zealand. Within an atmosphere of intrigue and excitement, Catton gradually reveals more and more of the world so that you can really appreciate the depth and vivacity of it.

However, I wouldn't say that this is a perfect book. Like a previous Man Booker nominee Pigeon English, an attempt at bringing a supernatural element into this grounded world feels forced. Once the main plot is over, the astrological implications gain more focus and these become less interesting, unfortunately tarnishing the fascinating character studies that conclude the book. There is also an interrupting narrator, which beyond giving a pleasing metafictional touch, doesn't really add anything to the novel.

But these are minor quibbles in what is a truly extraordinarily ambitious book which I'm sure will be rewarding on re-readings. Despite the length of it and the time it took to read it, a part of me is really tempted to jump back in again to Catton's glorious world, gripping mysteries and written in gorgeous prose to boot. A worthy winner and well worth investing your time in.