Julie Christine's Reviews > The Luminaries

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
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The Wild, Wild West, a frontier filled with dreamers, convicts, schemers and entrepreneurs. Some hope to make that lucky strike, others attach themselves like parasites to stars on the rise and the canniest let the eager do the dirty work while they provide the booze, drugs and women for which all men—regardless of their luck—will lay down cash money. This is the Gold Rush, the West Coast, the late 1860’s—but we’re not in California, Toto. This is the South Island of New Zealand, circa 1866, in the wet, green folds of the Southern Alps where they tumble into the Tasman Sea.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is also the frontier of storytelling—a no-holds-barred, raucous flight of imagination that I devoured with Epicurean pleasure. Jumping into its alphabet-soup cast of characters with chewy names like Emery Staines (an angelic young man, popular, rich and missing), Cowell Devlin (a man of God), George Shepard (whose flocks are housed in the town jail) and Anna Wetherell (a prostitute~ingenue who weathers all kinds of storms) is like tumbling in a dryer with towels and tennis shoes. You never know when you’ll get smacked upside the head with a plot twist.

This is a Gold Rush-era version of The Usual Suspects: Everyone’s got a story and no one is telling the truth. In this case, a hermitic prospector is dead, the town’s richest man is missing, a prostitute is senseless and wearing a dress lined with gold, a politician is being blackmailed, a body rises from its makeshift coffin in a doomed ship’s cargo hold and a beautiful redhead has just sashayed into town, claiming to be a widow and seeking what remains of her husband’s estate. Spinning all around this stage are twelve Luminaries: a constellation of men whose points of view we dip into throughout the novel, trying to unravel a mystery that is woven more tightly with each page.

Much has been made of Catton’s clever structure: The Luminaries is a set piece held aloft by an astrological chart that divides each part into smaller and smaller sections (Part One is 358 pages long; Part Twelve, two), according to celestial logic. But don’t be deterred by this ornamentation. I didn’t pay a whit of attention to the charts that precede each section—I couldn’t be distracted from carrying on with the story. Yet, there is something to be said for Catton’s conceit. The novel begins with a crowded, opulent jumble of characters and detail, like a sky full of dazzling stars. As its 832 pages turn, black space is allowed in, the focus narrows and individual details begin to sharpen.

The tale is told first from outside-in, then inside-out, from high to low, back-to-front, by the dead and the living, in court, in bed and in confession. Mystery is added to adventure and star-crossed love eventually conquers all.

I can’t remember when I’ve taken such delight in reading, when I felt the author’s sheer joy in writing. I've seen a handful of gripes that Catton’s story and style lack warmth and her characters are shallow. I dunno. I didn’t get a sense that she intended to write epic historical fiction in which the characters’ characters rise and fall and rise again and we feel morally lifted from the lessons learned. Sometimes it’s perfectly all right for the reading experience to be sheer pleasure. When it’s not only pleasurable, but intellectually stimulating, laugh-out-loud surprising and historically illuminating, you’ve got a five-star read.

Eleanor Catton has crafted a rollicking, unexpected and deeply satisfying carnival ride that ends all too soon. I doff my top hat and bow. Brava.
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Reading Progress

October 15, 2013 – Shelved
October 15, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
December 18, 2013 – Started Reading
December 18, 2013 – Shelved as: australia-new-zealand-south-pacific
December 18, 2013 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
December 18, 2013 –
page 116
13.68% "Love seeing these familiar place names: Clutha, Akaroa, Dunstan, Otago. The rain of Hokitika is just like that of the Northwest coast."
December 18, 2013 –
page 175
20.64% "Anna Wetherell was more than a dark horse; she was darkness itself, the cloak of it."
December 19, 2013 –
page 316
37.26% "Fortunately, this reads pretty quickly. Striking me (ha ha) as a Gold Rush-era, New Zealand version of The Usual Suspects. I keep waiting for someone to yell "Keyser Söze!""
December 20, 2013 –
page 503
59.32% "A seance. sigh."
December 21, 2013 –
page 658
77.59% "I can't imagine this is going to become any less outstanding in the next 190 pages. What a ripping yarn! Tearing myself away.."
December 22, 2013 – Shelved as: best-of-2013
December 22, 2013 – Shelved as: read-2013
December 22, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-20 of 20 (20 new)

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Julie Christine 2013 Man Booker Prize winner- the youngest author to wine. Holy Kiwis, Batman-she's a New Zealander!


message 2: by Julie Christine (last edited Dec 18, 2013 01:06PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Julie Christine I generally avoid reading reviews before I begin a novel-the book itself, the promise of its premise-has to grab me, not others' opinions of it. However, I spent some time last night and this morning combing through GR and professional reviews in the interest of not wasting precious reading hours on an 800-page doorstop. I nearly set this aside based on opinions that it's too clever, it drags, it's unsatisfying, overlong, etc. But...other reviews communicated such a sense of wonder and delight. I decided to forge ahead. After just 116 pages, I am loath to put it down and get on with my day. I hope hope hope this sense of engage,net continues.


Julie Christine *engagement. Blasted iPad auto-correct.


message 4: by J (new)

J Interested in your final thoughts on it, the mixed reviews kept me from it. But wow, kudos to her on the Booker at that age!


Julie Christine Jennie wrote: "Interested in your final thoughts on it, the mixed reviews kept me from it. But wow, kudos to her on the Booker at that age!"

I know, right! She's an extraordinary writer, there's no doubt. So far, I'm really enjoying the ride. Although my wrists are a little sore- this is a hell of a doorstop! :)


message 6: by Charisse (new) - added it

Charisse Ok gotta read this if it reminds you of The Usual Suspects..one of my favorite movies :)


message 7: by Zora (new) - added it

Zora you've convinced me to nudge it up my list.


Julie Christine BRAVA!!! 100 percent wowed. A crackin' great story. Catton deserves the accolades-this is rich and rewarding.


message 9: by Angela (new)

Angela What an awesome review! Moving this up on my list.


message 10: by Margitte (new)

Margitte You've thoroughly convinced me now. I've seen this book somewhere else before and thought it interesting. But not I really want to read it!


Julie Christine Angela wrote: "What an awesome review! Moving this up on my list." Thank you, Angela!


Julie Christine Margitte wrote: "You've thoroughly convinced me now. I've seen this book somewhere else before and thought it interesting. But not I really want to read it!"
Curious to read what you think of this, Margitte. It's fascinating to read the negative reviews now that I've finished...


message 13: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Ansbacher Great review Julie; and thanks for not spoiling the plot as I'm just halfway through.


Beata Julie, you always write reviews in ways I wish I could communicate my thoughts. I only read yours now, a day after I closed the back cover. Like you, I prefer not to read others' views and just go with my own interests.
I chose this one as my Book Club's 1 of 2 Big Books for this year (the other is The Goldfinch). I hope my group likes it as much as I did.


Marilyn You have dead on captured this book and my feelings about it. Brava to you!


Julie Christine Marilyn wrote: "You have dead on captured this book and my feelings about it. Brava to you!"
Thank you, Marilyn! This was SUCH a fun review to write. A book I adored!


Julie Christine Beata wrote: "Julie, you always write reviews in ways I wish I could communicate my thoughts. I only read yours now, a day after I closed the back cover. Like you, I prefer not to read others' views and just go ..."

Oh, I missed your sweet comment the first time around-thank you!! What did your book club think? This could be such a hit or miss read!


Julie Christine Will wrote: "Great review Julie; and thanks for not spoiling the plot as I'm just halfway through." Will, a much-belated thank you! What did you think of the book?


message 19: by Mona (new) - added it

Mona Fantastic review, Julie. Thanks to you, I'm moving this much higher on my to-read list.


message 20: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Ansbacher Julie wrote: "Will ..."
Well I was impressed, especially by the faux-Victorian style and the clever structure, rather than totally bowled over as you were. Let's say, I was never absorbed enough in the story to forget that I was reading a novel. Actually that's not quite true - the first half was magic. But towards the end, those progressively-shortened chapters did get in the way a bit. I did enjoy it anyway.


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