The Luminaries: Art or Heart?

*Don’t worry, this review contains no spoilers.

Yes, I have actually read it.

I ploughed my way through during a  two-week break at the beach over Christmas / New Year. For those of you who have been leading a hermit-like existence recently (and the hermit reference, as those of you who have read the book will know, is apt), The Luminaries is the 800-something-page whopper by Kiwi author Eleanor Catton. It was awarded the Man Booker prize last year.

The last Kiwi-penned book to win the Man Booker was Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, in 1985. So we’re pretty chuffed down here. The internet is fairly heaving with reviews by people who have put their lives on hold for the last umpteen days / weeks to read The Luminaries. As they emerge, blinking, into the daylight and begin to take up their everyday activities once more, they want to tell the world about their experience.

No wonder. I do too.

I won’t give a synopsis of the plot; you can Google that. While you’re at it, Google the speech given by Elizabeth Knox, another Kiwi writer, at the launch of The Luminaries in Wellington last August. Here’s just a bit of it:

“The Luminaries is, first and foremost, a gripping and infinitely surprising mystery novel. This high degree of suspense and sheer reading pleasure is the cumulative result of all the novel’s other astonishing richnesses. In equal measure, the beauty of its writing, the devilish intricacy of its plot, its and loving interest in human minds and motivations, and it’s extraordinary mathematical architecture. And, of course, all these virtues are interdependent…

“The novel’s plot is like a shell game played with dozens of shells, some of them covering startling compressed wonders like a magician’s silk flowers. Understandings are bundled up in the plot, then burst into sight at ten times their expected volume…

“The pace of the novel is a miracle—mathematical, but not mechanical. It’s the mathematics of nature, and once you’ve surrendered to The Luminaries and you’re in its grip you’ll feel that pace, and its poetry, in your body, in your bones and blood.”

I agree entirely with the first two paragraphs, and not so much with the third. Here’s why.

First up, The Luminaries is a thumpingly great crime novel. I love mysteries, the supernatural and surprising twists and turns in plot. The novel delivers on all of this, and brilliantly. The author handles the complex story with such skill that at no point did I become confused or have to click back through previous chapters (Yes, I’m a Kindle user) to remind myself of earlier plot points. Her subtle reminders and summaries are woven so vitally and appropriately into the story that you never think: “Aha, now she’s taking time out to review the plot so far.” She doesn’t have to be that obvious, nor that pedestrian. What’s more, the book is easy to read. I often expect major award winners to be desperately obscure and difficult to understand. Hard work rather than relaxation. More a sit-at-a-desk reading commitment that a read-in-the-bath pleasure. Thankfully, I read a lot of The Luminaries in the bath.

I found the character descriptions intriguing, if a little turgid in places. The insights into human character were wonderfully clever. I often recognised aspects of myself, both admirable and not so. No, I’m not going to tell you which ones.

More on character later.

I particularly loved the descriptions of the land, and of the miner’s life, and of Hokitika in 1866. I was ignorant of this part of my country’s history and it was fascinating. I could picture myself jumping the puddles and avoiding the mud as I walked down the sodden streets. (It still rains a lot in Hokitika.) I wanted to drink in every pub and sleep in every hotel. I wanted to befriend the whores. I wanted to stand at the spit and watch the ships as they attempted the treacherous crossing over the bar into the harbour. I could smell the sea and the opium and the native bush.

Much has been said about the novel’s unique structure. A writer for The Guardian describes it thus:

The novel has an entirely original organising principle: each chapter is preceded by an astrological chart and each character is associated with a heavenly body; the characters act in accordance with the actual movements of the cosmos as they were, starting on 27 January 1866. At the same time, the novel is organised in 12 parts, each half the length of the previous one – thus the novel itself wanes.

I enjoyed the book without taking much notice of any of this. Perhaps being aware of it would make the reading experience richer. Is it artifice for artifice’s sake? I’m not sure. Catton herself has said:

“One of the most baffling things is when people assume that when something is structurally ornate it is less human than something that is not structurally ornate. That puzzles me – I feel as a person the most alive and human and full of wonder when I am contemplating complexities.”

Which brings me to my next point, an expansion of what I said earlier about character.

Here’s the thing that left me giving the book four stars instead of five: It didn’t move me. It didn’t touch me emotionally. Sorry Elizabeth Knox, but I didn’t feel it in my body nor my bones nor my blood. Although I found the characters fascinating, it was in much the same way a scientist might find a specimen impaled on a pin fascinating. I was always at a remove; I never fully believed in them, nor cared about them.

The Guardian reviewer Kirsty Gunn had this to say in a review she wrote even before the novel won the Man Booker:

…nothing in this enormous book, with its exotic and varied cast of characters whose lives all affect each other and whose fates are intricately entwined, amounts to anything like the moral and emotional weight one would expect of it. That’s the point, in the end, I think, of The Luminaries. It’s not about story at all. It’s about what happens to us when we read novels – what we think we want from them – and from novels of this size, in particular. Is it worthwhile to spend so much time with a story that in the end isn’t invested in its characters? Or is thinking about why we should care about them in the first place the really interesting thing? Making us consider so carefully whether we want a story with emotion and heart or an intellectual idea about the novel in the disguise of historical fiction … There lies the real triumph of Catton’s remarkable book.

…the problem is that as we read on, we don’t read in. It is a curious act of double-writing that Catton has achieved – that she could write more and more about a thing, only to have it matter less and less. The characters don’t gain depth as the story proceeds; they slip further away from us.

Hmmmm.

I’m glad I read The Luminaries, but I won’t read it again. It was like making a passing acquaintance with a person so intellectually and artistically brilliant that they took your breath away – but with whom you felt no lasting emotional connection. Is this ambivalence, this waning of attachment and emotional investment, actually the key to the novel’s genius, as Kirsty Gunn suggests? If so, then the cover illustration, a woman’s face that is gradually obscured by a waning moon, is undoubtedly a clue.

Look, here’s the point: It’s a cracking good story. Eleanor Catton has made a sophisticated literary work of art accessible to the everyday reader. Anyone can read and enjoy the book, on one level or many. And that, I believe, is where the real genius lies.

Advertisements

Comments Off

%d bloggers like this: