Friday, October 25, 2013

Eleanor Catton’s ‘Luminaries,’ Man Booker Prize Winner - review in The New York Times

Following the Stars in a Rush to Riches


This year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize, “The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton, is long and demanding, as Booker winners often are. In the past five years, two Bookers have gone to Hilary Mantel, whose “Wolf Hall” is at first a grueling read, since Ms. Mantel artfully complicated her Tudor tableau by eschewing names for pronouns. But “Wolf Hall” rewards the effort it demands, and in the end everything is fully, triumphantly clear. The same cannot be said for “The Luminaries,” nor is it Ms. Catton’s intent.

Patricia Wall/The New York Times


By Eleanor Catton
Illustrated. 834 pages. Little, Brown & Company. US$27.

Pool photo by Anthony Devlin
Eleanor Catton and her partner, Steven Toussaint, after she won the Man Booker Prize.

There are readers who will be fascinated by the structure and ambiguities of “The Luminaries.” But by and large, it’s a critic’s nightmare. Consider the reviewing efforts of those seeking to explain, recommend and applaud this book: raving abounds, but so do clutches at thin air. According to The Guardian, the book ultimately “weighs nothing” but is thrillingly “about what happens to us when we read novels.” So: “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?”

Is Ms. Catton’s immense period piece, set in New Zealand, for readers who want to think about what they should be thinking? The book’s astrology-based structure does not exactly clarify anything. Its Piscean quality, she writes in an opening note, “affirms our faith in the vast and knowing influence of the infinite sky.”
Here on Earth, “The Luminaries” is more baffling. The story begins on what is apparently a dark and stormy night (find this witty if you must), that of Jan. 27, 1866. Walter Moody, one of the book’s principals, has escaped a shipwreck to arrive at the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, New Zealand. There, he interrupts a very private meeting. Twelve men are gathered, and Ms. Catton has given each one the personality stereotypical to an astrological sign. For example, the Leo is arrogant and confident to the point of bullying. 

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