Eleanor Catton, age 28, is the youngest author to receive the Man Booker Prize. Luminaries is also the longest book, at a lofty 832 pages, to be awarded the prize. The 2013 Booker long list featured a lot of ladies which made me pretty excited as female authors are often overshadowed by their male counterparts in the literary world (and hence why I started the Female Authors book club). Several of the nominations stood out to me as promising reads, and I did thoroughly enjoy Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, as well as NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names – both of which ultimately made the short list. Luminaries, however, was awarded the crowning achievement so I thought I would check it out. Now where do I start… I’m sad that I didn’t end up liking it.
This book was quite the undertaking. It started out promising; Walter Moody arrives in New Zealand during the 1866 gold rush and stumbles upon a secret meeting of twelve men, where he is then drawn into a discussion regarding a series of local crimes and a mysterious murder. What follows is a complex web of character relations and clues leading to the piece-by-piece reveal of the various events that have taken place. Too complex, if you ask me. Walter Moody would have made a great protagonist and I was expecting to follow the story with him as the central character, but shortly after his introduction the reader is bombarded with the fourteen or so other characters and Moody becomes just a part of the melee. Catton structured the chapters in a pretty brilliant way, each of the twelve men represent a zodiac sign, which then serves as the skeleton for Catton’s development of each character. I felt that this concept was lost in the writing though. It was intriguing, but if I hadn’t been told about the zodiac sign aspect I wouldn’t have picked it out on my own. I’m not sure I understand how the zodiac was related to the actual story itself, and therefore am left with the impression it was a bit gimmicky. I had a lot of trouble actually connecting to any of the characters, even Anna Wetherell and Lydia Wells, the two central female characters. A lot of the story was revealed through one-on-one dialogue between the twelve sleuthing men, and as a method of advancing the plot this failed to really draw me in. After I reached part 4 I realized I just wasn’t interested in the outcome, and that doesn’t bode well. I will say that I did enjoy several particular parts of the book despite all my complaining: I liked the séance scene and many aspects of the unfolding mystery were very cleverly written.
I really admire Catton for what she has achieved with this novel, despite the fact that I didn’t love it. Overall I suppose I’m just not sophisticated enough to find real enjoyment in a book like this. While it was technically flawless, I felt it lacked something that made it really real, something that gave it a pulse. I was reminded at one point of The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling; the books are similar in that the story kicks off following the death of a character that everyone knows, and is followed by the introduction of a zillion characters that are all intertwined via various threads that ultimately tie them back to the character that has died. I found Rowling’s character development far more engaging, and while Casual Vacancy also used tête-à-tête dialogue to advance the plot it felt more genuine and in the end I connected far better with her characters. Perhaps if the character list in Luminaries had been simplified or if a few hundred pages had been edited out… I can’t really pinpoint what it was specifically that prevented this book for ‘clicking’ with me. If I’ve learned anything from this it’s that just because a book has won a prize doesn’t necessarily mean it is the book for me. While I have tried to expand my reading horizons in the last few years, sometimes experiences like this make me feel I should really stick to what I know I will like – though if I spend all my time geeking out on classic feminist sci-fi and comic books I just might end up a bit socially weird. Moreso than I already am hahaha.