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Book Review – The Luminaries – 4 1/2 stars

I carried this mammoth book with me to the Middle East on a 3 1/2 week work trip. Man Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, was too big to fit into my optimally packed carry-on suitcase so I had to lug it around in my backpack, through 8 flights, 5 land border crossings and 8 hotels. It’s big, heavy and awkward to hold but I don’t regret it even though I finished it in my first week away! I am in awe of the young Catton for creating such a complex story and web of characters without losing momentum or narrative thread.

I’ve only been to the South Island of New Zealand once and did not visit the gold prospecting towns that are mentioned but I could still visualise the setting. Catton focuses entirely on the characters and does not spend many words on the aching beauty of New Zealand. If she had then the story would have been unmanageably long!

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The Luminaries book cover

I’ve visited several towns around the world that started due to a gold rush, I’ve wandered around looking at the equipment and the piles of tailings, I studied geology and learnt about gold ore formation and alluvial gold accumulation but never really tried to feel what life was like in such a difficult setting as a frontier gold prospecting settlement, without facilities, comforts or services. Nor had I thought much about the people who would be drawn to such settlements, looking to make money from the prospectors, such as publicans, journalists, brokers and prostitutes. Eleanor Catton amply brought that to life and clearly did a lot of research and thinking.

Towards the beginning of the book I stopped reading the short italicised introductions to each chapter because I didn’t want to know in advance what was going to happenin that chapter. Suddenly in the 2nd last section, the introductions became exceptionally informative and I discovered all sorts of vital information in them that brought the story together. I’m unsure of why Catton used that literary device but it was interesting and surprising.

I think that I credited Francis Carver with being a criminal mastermind with supernatural powers and I suppose that’s what Catton wanted. It was sobering to listen in on his conversations with his lover and realize that they were human and subject to normal desires and fears.

A focus is placed throughout the book on Miss Anna Wetherell, the prostitute, the innocent and ill used victim of circumstance, greed and poverty, the opium addict, and muse. I was amazed that one woman could captivate nearly all of the men of the town and intrigued to hear her story. For me when she was finally given her own voice the story became inconsistent. I couldn’t reconcile what all of the men had said about her in the preceding 2/3 of the book and what she told us herself. How could they all have misread her so badly? Did they just see her through the prism of their own desires or did she not reveal anything at all of herself or did Catton slip up at this advanced stage of the novel?

The other character that I couldn’t believe was Crosbie Wells. We read his series of impassioned yet subservient letters to his half brother, full of humility and fear. We then travel back in time and meet Crosbie and find instead a confident, brash and somewhat reckless man, entirely unlike the character he projected in his letters. Did Crosbie project a false persona to his brother or show different faces to different people or did Catton slip up?

I felt terrible for the two Chinese characters in the book. Ah Sook had an awful life and suffered an ignominious end. Ah Quee was just a pawn in the greed of other men. I know that this is likely to be realistic but I could have wished for Catton to empower them. I have often wondered about the lives of the many Chinese prospectors who flocked to goldfields and have wondered at their motivations to leave their culture and embark into the unknown without a grasp of the language or customs. If Catton’s story is accurate then it seems that men like Ah Quee suffered while others became rich, from the agent that carried the debt for his passage to the owner of the title that he prospected; human trafficking and slavery really.

I have some lingering uncertainties after pondering the book:
1) who dug up Staines’ gold and took it to Crosbie’s cottage? We don’t hear Staines tell anyone else where it is hidden so how did someone else find it? Was it Crosbie? Did he guess that Staines had gotten from Carver the gold that his wife had stolen from him and Crosbie took it back? I  thought that he trusted Staines… when Staines is about to be escorted to prison his debts are listed to him and it seems that he will be able to pay them but with what? The gold that he hid was found in Crosbie’s cottage and was then given to Mrs Wells/Carver, wasn’t it? I’m confused!
2) did Carver leave the gold there after killing Crosbie so that his lover could inherit it? Why not take it with him?
3) why did drinking of 1/2 a phial of laudanum kill Crosbie? Had Carver poisoned it?
4) did Carver already know that it was Crosbie that had cut him, before Anna told him or is she actually responsible for Crosbie’s death?
5) did Tauwhare realize that by telling Carver the whereabouts of Crosbie that Carver would go there and kill him? Why did Tauwhare sell the location of his friend? Was his only loyalty to money? What did he even spend his money on? He seems to live a self sufficient life with his tribe.
6) did Carver assault Anna more than just the slap? If not, why does Lowenthal tell Staines an account of injuries sustained and blood from chest to hip? Is he just talking about the abortion and pretending it was an assault instead to hide the fact of the abortion? Or was there an assault prior to the abortion? I’m confused! Did Mannering organise the abortion, is that why he says that she can trust him?
7) what is the significance of Adrian Moody arriving at the end of the book after being sent for by Carver? Why did Carver send for him? Why does Catton send Walter away from Hokitika without meeting with his father or at least reading his letter? Simply for the sake of poignancy or did I miss something?
If you, dear reader, can help me with answering these questions I will be most grateful!

The ending is delightful and the discussion of the merits of honesty versus loyalty was fascinating. The zodiac aspects went over my head but would presumably be enriching. I unreservedly recommend this excellent book that turns back on itself, coincidences pile up and we are compelled to read on and on and on.

Other reviews
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/11/luminaries-eleanor-catton-review
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/10260118/The-Luminaries-by-Eleanor-Catton-review.html
http://mobile.nytimes.com/2013/10/17/books/review/eleanor-cattons-booker-prize-winning-luminaries.html?_r=0&referrer=

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3 comments on “Book Review – The Luminaries – 4 1/2 stars

  1. Book Guy Reviews
    March 31, 2015

    This has been on my list for a while. I’m thinking I’ll pick it up soon. Thanks so much for the wonderful review! If you’re ever interested in some other awesome book reviews and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!

  2. Maxine
    April 2, 2015

    Yes, I enjoyed this too. I was disappointed to miss the discussion. I didn’t get into it straight away but as it picked up pace it became very interesting and amazing. I don’t have answers to your queries, it was such a complex (and long!) book so I’m sure I missed things as I read it. It required a lot of concentration and memory with all the characters and plot lines. I did wonder if many of the characters showed different faces to each other, e.g. Crosbie Wells was a strange character but perhaps when writing letters to a long lost aristocratic half-brother he came across differently than he would in real life? And Anna as well, the first part of the book was really everyone else impressions of her character.
    I’m glad to hear someone else didn’t understand the zodiac stuff, I kept wondering if I was supposed to know what it meant during the story. I read a review that discussed the structure of the book:
    ‘The Luminaries is divided into 12 dated parts, spaced at almost monthly intervals. We begin on 27 January 1866, but in Part Four, dated 27 April 1866, we also go back to the events of a year earlier, and the remaining eight parts replay the events of 1865, moving phase by phase through the zodiacal pattern. This is the most elaborate machinery of all, because the decreasing lengths of the succeeding parts mimic the waning moon, each part being half the length of the one before it.’
    Also found out after reading the book that as the 19 characters are planets or zodiac signs they can only meet in a chapter based on movement of planets and stars…too clever for me.
    I didn’t pick up on any of that! She is a very clever writer but perhaps a little too clever 😉

    • strivetoengage
      April 3, 2015

      We missed you at the discussion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and that review. I missed a lot more than I realised in that case!

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This entry was posted on March 31, 2015 by in Books & Ideas and tagged , , , , , .
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