Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

I usually only review books that I enjoyed or that I think many of you might enjoy... but am reviewing The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton because it has generated so much buzz, especially after winning the 2013 Booker Prize. I'm not a big reader of historical novels so perhaps that is one of the reasons this book failed to wow me, even despite its many rave reviews. The book is set in the gold rush days of 19th century New Zealand... it has a clever structure, some strong writing, and is generally a page-turner for the mystery it unfolds. I'm not quite sure why I was bored, but maybe it has something to do with the fact that I read this novel right after reading The Goldfinch which had blown me away.

Twelve men meet at the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, New Zealand and a thirteenth man, Walter Moody, walks in. Moody is an educated man from Edinburgh who has come to find gold. The book shifts among the stories of these men who are connected in many ways, altering perspectives and bringing forth a mystery that all of them are trying to solve. The characters are well drawn and analyzed, but that is in equal parts the glory of the writing and the source of its confusion. The forte of this book is definitely in its structure, which uses astrological symbolism... but in my opinion, the intense and carefully thought out structure takes away from the story and adds to the confusion and weighs it down. There are twelve characters who correspond to the Zodiac signs and seven “planetary” characters, as well as one “terra firma” character - the hermit prospector whom the mystery revolves around. The book itself is divided into twelve parts, and each part is approximately half of the length of the previous part. Part I is 360 pages and Part XII is one page. Each chapter has a short italicized summation that gets longer as the chapters get shorter. This is definitely an amazing achievement, but not one I care for at all. This book is narrated in Victorian fashion and really requires a lot of concentration to get through it.

Still, it did win the Booker Prize (even though that's the biggest mystery to me!!) so you may enjoy reading it even though I did not.

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