Top critical review
A sprawling, ambitious, overwrought, inconsistent epic
1 August 2015
The Granta Books 2013 edition, ISBN: 9781847088765. This edition is printed and bound in India. Although I’ve been disappointed time and again by the sub-standard quality of these editions for readers of the Indian sub-continent, I am glad to report that this one proves to be an exception. The typeface is neat and fairly large and legible. The quality of the spine and paper are also satisfactory.
The Luminaries was awarded the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2013. Ms. Catton’s ambition is evident by the sheer size of the book: it’s a daunting 832 pages long. The novel begins promisingly, and a stupendous 360 pages are devoted to the first chapter alone. The chapter is amazingly focused and serves to introduce us to the various players and their intertwining storylines in the year 1866 in the New Zealand goldfields. Walter Moody has just disembarked from a boat and interrupts a council of twelve men at a hotel in the town of Hokitika. The council has assembled because of the following incidents: a wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Walter Moody is soon drawn into the mystery.
I found the first chapter the most tedious but also the most engrossing part of the book. It lays the groundwork of the plot and reveals partially the motives for the actions of the various players. Some readers might find the dearth of female characters in the novel a bit shocking, owing to the fact that the author happens to be a woman. The explanation for this is quite an ordinary one, and one, which I presume, is based in fact: New Zealand was a frontier country and populated predominantly by men seeking to make their fortunes in the goldfields.
The novel picks up pace in the second-half, and I literally galloped through the last quarter of it.
Ms. Catton employs what I like to call the (clever) Christopher Nolan-style of editing. The method can be described like this: the story is not inherently a mystery but appears to be so because the events are presented to the reader in a back and forth manner (present, past, present, past - 3, 1, 4, 2, 7, 5, 8, 6, etc.).
The prose is written in a verbose manner that pays homage to Dickens’ novels, and it appears as if Ms. Catton imbibed the whole dictionary of the English language. Indeed, the prose is quite virtuosic by modern standards and one can’t help but marvel at some of the beautifully composed paragraphs. The plot might appear dense but I never once lost track because there are recapitulations that are contrived through the medium of dialogue; the plot only appears dense because of the aforementioned non-linear Nolan-esque structure that Ms. Catton chooses to employ in the telling of the tale. Oh, and by the way, having any sort of knowledge of astrology is not a prerequisite. The astrological charts appearing at the beginning of each chapter are a superfluous, but an ingenious bit of gimmickry. I recommend this for novices and seasoned readers alike with the caveat that “there is no accounting for taste.”