Should You Read "The Luminaries", the Winner of the Man Booker Prize? A Quick Review

Surprise, the Man Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary prize, has just been awarded to a New Zealand author, 28 years old, the youngest winner ever. "The Luminaries" is also the longest book ever, 832 pages, much bigger than any of the other shortlisted books (see picture above). 

This is Eleanor Catton's second novel, she took three years to write it. She has bewitched the writing community, will she now also bewitch readers?

The media is raving about this book hailed by the Booker Prize judges for "conjuring a world of greed and gold" (see articles below) - indeed, it is set in the last years of the New Zealand gold rush, in the 1860s. Bill Rohrbach who's reviewed it for The New York Times  has come out with a lengthy laudatory piece (see here), saying in substance that in spite of the length, by the end, lo and behold, there is a "sliver that delivers". Indeed, he thought it was a lot of fun to read, like doing a "Charlotte Brontë-themed crossword puzzle while playing chess and Dance Dance Revolution on a Bongo Board." He has no doubts: "'The Luminaries' is a true achievement. Catton has built a lively parody of a 19th-century novel, and in so doing created a novel for the 21st, something utterly new."

Creating a 21st century novel using 19th century language? Hum...Yet, in spite of the exaggerations, it sounds like something one shouldn't miss. On Amazon, one customer  nicely summed up the problem with this book: "Gushing reviews are easy to write (so are pans), but what to say when you know that a book is well written, innovatively and creatively structured, and is destined to be loved by many, but it just didn't appeal to you? 'The Luminaries' is such a book." (review from Mary Lins, member of Amazon's Vine Voice program that provides reviewers with advance copies - she gave it 3 stars out of 5 and her review is considered "most useful" by Amazon). Another one (who gave it a one star) wrote "This is everything a book shouldn't be. Cold. Contrived. Tedious. Dishonest." Okay, it sure is easy to pan a book...

Once again, like in the case of Egger's book "The Circle" (quick review here), I was curious and downloaded on my Kindle a sample of the book. The digital edition costs some $16 on Amazon (more if you live in Europe because of the "whispernet" charge and/or tax) - the digital version costs $2 more than the hardcover, a bizarre marketing strategy, yet one that traditional publishers appear to favor, no doubt to try and "protect" their printed edition.  It has garnered 31 customer reviews since its release on October 15. On Goodreads, true to form (this is a site that is characterized by an avalanche of ratings), it has already received 264 ratings for an average of 3.90 stars (out of 5) and 96 reviews .

Length of sample: about 45 pages. It is to be noted however that the text starts only after several pages (8% of sample) dedicated to stuff like table of contents, dedication and an enigmatic note to the reader that doesn't clarify anything - in fact, it is rather irritating and pointless. So for such a big book, you don't get that much of a sample, though as usual, you can "look inside" on Amazon, including the end.

Sample Analysis: The book, divided in 12 parts like the Zodiac, features the intertwined stories of 13 men seeking their fortune, including Walter Moody, a just-arrived Scottish immigrant.

The book opens with a scene in the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, a town near the gold fields, in a smoking room on a dark and stormy night where  all 13 men are gathered. You are immediately introduced to Walter Moody who has just walked in, feeling "queasy and disturbed" by the presence of the others. He is described in true 19th century style: 

"Moody's natural expression was one of readiness and attention. His grey eyes were large and unblinking, and his supple, boyish mouth was usually poised in an expression of polite concern. His hair inclined to a tight curl;it had fallen in ringlets to this shoulders in his youth, but now he wore it close against his skull, parted on the side and combed flat with a sweet-smelling pomade that darkened its golden hue to an oily brown. His brow and cheeks were square, his nose straight, and his complexion smooth. He was not quite eight-and-twenty, still swift and exact in his motions, and possessed the kind of roguish, unsullied vigour that conveys neither gullibility nor guile. He presented himself in the manner of a discreet and quick-minded butler, and as a consequence was often drawn into the confidence of the least voluble of men, or invited to broker relations between people he had only lately met. He had, in short, an appearance that betrayed very little about his own character, and an appearance that others were immediately inclined to trust. Moody was unaware of the advantage his inscrutable grace afforded him. Like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior."

Wow, if his "vigour" conveys "neither gullibility nor guile", what does it convey then? No matter, I'm nitpicking. This is a pretty exhaustive description and written in a leisurely, convoluted style that recalls Dickens or Balzac. Also, the point of view is notably omniscient: you are outside Walter Moody's mind, you are looking at him but you are also told what he is thinking - it is the sort of point of view that triggers the feeling of being thrown into the 19th century. 

As you might expect, not much happens in this first chapter, people talk, a mysterious murder is hinted at, unsavory characters that appear to be disliked by the group are mentioned, a complex past is partly evoked by Walter Moody who is indeed, as his name suggests, a moody, multi-layered character, unwilling to unbutton himself to the group in the room. And small wonder, these men are a strange and diverse lot. Mostly white, they include inexplicably a Maori tattooed native and two Chinese men.

So what are the hooks that might induce you to buy it?

Hook #1: The writing style. As the description of Walter Moody quoted above suggests, this is a style that can either draw you in or irritate you because of the minutiae it closely examines, like a literary microscope. It is obvious that the pace is going to be very, very slow and depending on your temper, you might savor it or hate it.

Dialogues are wordy, interspersed with long flashbacks. At a certain point, the logistics of the scene beg disbelief: the man Walter Moody is talking to offers to go and bring him back a drink - the bar is just a few steps away - and yet he doesn't return for quite a while, enough time for every man in the group to whisper to each other and for a new person to start a conversation with Walter. Why doesn't the original interlocutor return with the promised drink? The whole scene is contrived, the pacing is off and that is a pity because you stop believing in what the author intends to tell you.

The writing does however succeed very well in evoking a time and a turn of mind. But Eleanor Catton is not the only one capable of this. Notably Peter Ackroyd has managed to successfully evoke 19th century settings, most recently in his peculiar "The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein" (published in 2008, I blogged about it here).

Hook # 2: The Main Character, Walter Moody has a family past that haunts him. Using most of his inheritance, he has saved his father's second wife from poverty when she was abandoned by his father who'd escaped to New Zealand, along with his elder brother. Walter comes out looking like a knight in white armor while his father and his brother both sound like despicable and dangerous villains, particularly the father who, after hitting gold, has remarried and is guilty of bigamy. Not unsurprisingly, Walter Moody is ashamed of his family. But you are left to wonder what will happen next, as the father and brother (who live in another part of New Zealand) are not likely to leave Walter alone.  

Hook # 3: A mystery murder in an unusual setting. In spite of the slow pace of the story telling, you realize that Walter Moody witnessed something dreadful on the ship bringing him to Hokitika. What it is, you are not given to know. The setting is also a refreshing change from the California gold rush.

Conclusion: Hooks # 2 and # 3 work well, the only problem is with the writing style. I can see why some feel it is pretentious. Could I live with it for 832 pages? I am not sure. I think I'll wait and buy it when the price drops down...

If you've read it, please share your opinion with us. If you're interested in reading it, you can find it on Amazon, click the icon:


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