Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Prepared by Sue B

Eleanor Catton's Booker prize-winning novel, The Luminaries.

About 8 members gathered to discuss this very large novel set in the New Zealand goldfields in the nineteenth century. Not all of us had read all 832 pages, and as usual our reactions varied. Some liked it and others were disappointed. Some found it a very good read just as a mystery, others felt that after all the complexity the book was “hollow”.

The first 200 pages took some concentration as many characters were introduced. We found the recapitulation of the plot at about page 320 very useful as all the jumping about in time and different points of view took some getting used to. We discussed the complexity of the plot for some time, wondering if the author had an enormous flow chart on her wall as she wrote, some of us feeling that there were considerable holes in the plot and others querying whether we were supposed to care about that.

The characters were well drawn and interesting, including “shady characters like the Wild West”. We found the interactions between the characters were often very perceptive, one of us commenting that the young author seemed “emotionally precocious”.  We couldn’t agree whether the two main characters underwent any real character development though, and wondered whether they were even meant to?

The book had a nineteenth century feel to it in some ways. One of us was reminded of Thomas Hardy and another of Dickens. Each character was introduced in a quite theatrical nineteenth century way, and each chapter had an introductory summary. We enjoyed the joke that in the later chapters the summaries became the actual story and if we had made the mistake of skipping them we then had to backtrack. There was some racism and other nods towards nineteenth century attitudes. However the book does not moralise as do many period novels. We enjoyed the sense of place created, for example by the description of the rain in Hokitika. We noticed the humour, for example when Nillson inadvertently ended up as the generous donor.

We wondered what the book was actually about. Truth and lies? That there are many sides to a story? “Some things are never done” so once set in train things don’t get resolved? The deceptiveness of appearances – for example in the séance? The structure of the book was surprising. There was a lot of build up to the court scene but it was not the climax.  Each chapter was half the length of the preceding one.

We noticed that the whole book was structured around the zodiac, and each character in it represented a different force. Some of us felt that this distorted the story and made it and the characters less believable and meaningful. For some it was largely just decoration. Others found that astrology worked as an interesting way to interpret the world.

Everyone agreed that this book gave us a lot to talk about.