I’m officially completely wrapped up in this book. I have read almost two hundred pages today. Granted, it was a hot and lazy Saturday afternoon and neither the husband nor I wanted to go anywhere or do anything, but still. I could have napped, played on the computer, watched TV. But no napping happened on my half of the couch today. That’s how I know I’m really enjoying a book.
After spending Part I (and 360 pages) setting up this elaborate backstory and mystery, I wondered where Catton was going to go with the story, besides unraveling all the complicated relationships amongst all of the twenty major characters. She does just that, but things are still pretty tangled up where I am now, at the beginning of Part IV. It comes as no small surprise to me that events of this book are, well, surprising me. I am not often surprised by sudden plot twists, not in books, not in movies or TV shows. Some of the stuff that’s been happening in The Luminaries is surprising me. I’m not going to give any spoilers because I really want to know if Bethany is surprised when she gets to the things that surprised me when she eventually reads this one.
This book got booted out of The Morning News Tournament of Books in Round One this spring. The judge called The Luminaries “well-constructed,” but she didn’t mean it in a favorable way. But this book is very well-constructed. And organized. Like I said in my last post, I doubt I’m going to be able to figure out all of the astronomy/astrology references that abound. I did start to decipher the astronomy diagrams, though. The twelve men who are present at the council at the start of the novel are all represented by the twelve different signs of the zodiac. I assume they were assigned a sign based on their personality characteristics, but I have no desire to get into that. We can consider these characters our major protagonists. The remaining six major living characters are represented on the charts as planetary symbols (this I had to learn via Wikipedia as it is not made clear in the novel itself), and their symbols are on the circle chart in the pie-piece associated with whichever character they spend the most time interacting with in that particular part of the novel. Clear as mud? Good. I’m sure there’s lots more I’m not getting but this helped make some sense of the drawings. And I’m happy to pass this along to you. Another bit of good construction I’ve noticed is that the parts get gradually shorter and shorter as the book goes on. Part I is 360 pages, Part II is 160, spiraling down to a 1 page Part XII. I’m sure this has something to do with phases of the moon or whatnot, but I’m not sure and no one is talking as of yet. That is just my best guess based on the cover art (see above–there are twelve different crescent shapes).
I will make one criticism. This is a very plot-driven book, which is fine. Mysteries usually are. But there are so many characters that I don’t feel like I’m getting to know anyone beyond a very superficial level. The one exception to that is Sook Yongsheng. For some reason we get in his head and learn his story. Maybe the others are yet to come. And Anna Wetherell, she’s around a lot too, but mostly we learn about how she affects others, not how she feels. I suspect to get more about her internal life as the novel progresses, since her back-story is rapidly becoming the major mystery of the piece. Losing depth of characterization for breadth of cast of characters is a fair trade off, I suppose. It’s just surprising that a book like this would win the Man Booker, since the last few winners of that prize that I’ve read have had really tight focus on one major character (for example, The Sea, The Sense of an Ending, Life of Pi, and White Tiger, to name a few), to the detriment of anything actually happening in these books. That’s true of the first two I listed, not necessarily the second two. Of course, Life of Pi’s action is potentially of questionable veracity.
My advice remains the same: when you are starting this book, and you all should start this book, be sure to set aside a good chunk of time so you can get everyone sort of straight in your head and you aren’t annoyed with it for the first two hundred pages. It’s a rollicking good ride.