Thoughts on Part I of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

luminaries cover


I finally managed to get into The Luminaries.  It only took like a hundred and fifty pages.  Fortunately, that’s not a huge chunk of this book.  Part one was three hundred sixty pages.  It actually took that long to get the plot set up, if you can believe that.  Once I started figuring out who all the major players were and how they all fit together it began to make more sense.  It’s definitely a book that is best read in large spurts though.  If I only read a few pages at a time I end up having to reread those pages when I pick it up again.

Catton’s writing style is traditional.  Long paragraphs (not Henry James long, but long), long words, lush descriptions of scenery and wardrobe.  People don’t write like this anymore, and maybe there is a reason for that, but now that I’ve adjusted to it, I remember how much I enjoy reading books like this once I make sense of the world the author is creating.  Here is an example of Catton’s lovely, descriptive writing: “Anna moved away from him again, to the bedhead this time, and wrapped her fingers around the iron knob.  As she moved he smelled her again—the sea.  The intensity of the sensation startled him.  He had to check the urge to step toward her, to follow her, and breathe her in.  He smelled salt, and iron, and the heavy, metallic taste of foul weather… low cloud, he thought, and rain.  And not just the sea: a ship.  That tarred ropy smell, the dusty damp of bleached teak, oiled sailcloth, candle wax.  His mouth began to water (154).”  Isn’t that nice?

So far this book is a mystery story.  There is a dead hermit, a missing millionaire, a disappeared shipping crate, a fortune sewn into women’s dresses, a possibly suicidal whore, and twelve men who are all being implicated in some aspect of a large plot involving all of the above.  Once I got all the players sorted out (thankfully there is a list of characters at the beginning), following the plot got much easier, though I still find myself flipping back and forth to remind myself of plot points.  The questions are as follows: who killed the hermit; is the millionaire missing, or also dead; who took the shipping crate; whose fortune is in those dresses; did the whore overdose on opium on purpose or did someone poison her?  The interesting part of all of these events is that the hermit was found dead, the millionaire went missing, and the whore turned up half dead in the road all on the same day, 14 January 1866.  The “present day” action of Part I takes place on 27 January 1866, a dark and stormy night.  The back-story is presented to the reader as a frame.  The twelve men of interest have gathered together in a hotel parlor to discuss the events of the past two weeks.  Their “council” is interrupted by Walter Moody, a new arrival to Hokitika (that’s the name of the Gold Rush town in New Zealand where the bulk of the action has taken place so far).  For some reason, these twelve men, who are very concerned with keeping their investigation into the events of 14 January secret and to themselves elect to tell the entire story to Mr. Moody, who none of them knows from Adam, and whose intentions may or may not be noble.  Mr. Moody seems like a stand-up fellow, of course, but it’s a bit strange that they all decide to confide in him.  Of course, he is the one who interrupted their council.  Perhaps they all silently decided it was easier to let him in on everything than to forcibly remove him from the room.

The Luminaries also has a whole bunch of subtext with astronomy and astrological charts that I doubt I will scratch the surface of understanding unless it’s ultimately referred to directly in the novel, which it hasn’t been so far.  Each part of the book has an astrological chart associated with it, with the twelve major characters names written on the outside, and each one has a zodiac symbol as well.  It’s not something I know anything about, and it’s probably this extra layer of meaning that helped it to win the Man Booker.  Sadly for me, I’m not going to dedicate any extra time to this book to sort out that extra stuff.  At least not right now.

luminaries star chart

So there’s my update.  I’m hoping to make enough headway in the next forty-eight hours to have another update for you on Saturday.  If not, you guys may be subjected to pictures of cats with books.

This entry was posted in Eleanor Catton, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - Important Award Winners, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

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