Day 463: The Luminaries

Cover for The LuminariesBest Book of the Week! Year!

This last year I read several books that played wonderfully with structure. I’m thinking particularly of A Visit from the Goon Squad, a series of stories linked by their characters that somehow forms a whole, and Life After Life, in which the heroine’s life is repeated, with slight changes that lead to significant ones. I loved both of these inventive approaches to structure, and now I add to this list The Luminaries, the latest winner of the Man Booker Prize. This book is also my second recently reviewed novel set in New Zealand.

Walter Moody is newly come to the gold fields of the South Island of New Zealand in 1866. He has arrived in rough seas and is shaken by an apparition he has seen in the bowels of the ship. Seeking warmth and comfort, he checks into a seedy waterfront hotel and enters the parlor, where he accidentally interrupts the meeting of 12 other men.

After some initial hesitancy, the men begin telling him a series of tales, all interconnected, but the whole of which they cannot make out. The tales concern a missing trunk, a fortune found in a dead man’s cabin, the disappearance of a prominent citizen, the apparent attempted suicide of a whore. Each man at the meeting has his own part of the story to impart. Moody is able to make some sense of the story, but all go away from the meeting knowing that pieces are missing.

This section of the book is the longest, making up almost half its length. The cover of the novel, showing a waning moon, gives you a hint to its structure. It is divided into 12 sections, each one shorter than the one before but each one adding to the revelations of the original tales, until the final very short slivers of sections reveal all.

Each of these sections is also headed with an astrological chart that shows how the heavenly bodies are positioned within the signs of the 12 initial characters. This I did not understand at all, but Catton provides some indication at the beginning of the sections about what the astrology predicts.

The chapters of the novel are charmingly headed with old-fashioned descriptions of what happens in the chapter. Over time, the descriptions themselves begin to drive the narrative.

In The Luminaries, we’re presented with a novel that embodies a puzzle, a complex tale of villainy and foul crimes but also of love and loyalty. I was completely engrossed in  entangling the threads of this story. Despite its beginnings as a tale of cheats and chicanery, you may be surprised to find that you are reading a love story about two characters connected by their stars.

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21 thoughts on “Day 463: The Luminaries

  1. literaryvittles January 29, 2014 / 1:54 pm

    I will admit I didn’t read your entire review, mostly because I like to go into a novel knowing very little about it. But I’m glad to see you recommending this so highly as I’m planning to read it this year! Cheers.

    • whatmeread January 29, 2014 / 2:00 pm

      Not much of the review is about the plot. A lot more of it is about the structure. I hope you enjoy it!

  2. Naomi January 29, 2014 / 2:02 pm

    This is a great review about a novel that I have heard contradicting opinions. I’m rooting for your side, since I got this book for Christmas and hope to read it sometime soon.

    • whatmeread January 29, 2014 / 2:04 pm

      Let me know what you think of it!

  3. Carolyn O January 29, 2014 / 7:55 pm

    I got this one out of the library and immediately returned it because I knew there was no way I could finish it in two weeks — now that I know a little about the structure, I’m looking forward to reading it even more! Thanks for the review!

    • whatmeread January 30, 2014 / 7:35 am

      Can you not renew the book to keep it longer?

      • Carolyn O January 30, 2014 / 2:12 pm

        Not new releases, unfortunately.

      • whatmeread January 30, 2014 / 2:32 pm

        Oh, really? It’s too bad you don’t live nearby. I’d lend you my copy. It’s astonishing to me how bad some libraries are. The one here only got one copy of Life After Life, and there’s a long line waiting for it to be free.

      • Carolyn O January 30, 2014 / 2:34 pm

        Our libraries are connected by an ILL network, which is great, but still, wait times can be long.

      • whatmeread January 30, 2014 / 2:39 pm

        None of the library employees seem to even know what an inter-library loan is. When I worked in a library years ago, the answer to an inquiry about a book we didn’t have was to offer to get the book from another library. Now, they just look at me and say “We don’t have that.”

      • Carolyn O January 30, 2014 / 2:42 pm

        I thought Austin was supposed to be civilized!

      • whatmeread January 30, 2014 / 2:47 pm

        Ha, ha! I used to live in Houston, and you could get any book there. You might have to wait while they dragged it out of some vault in the basement, but they would have it. Here, they give the books away or sell them if no one has checked them out in awhile! I never heard of such a thing! They have tons of cheap paperbacks, but if you need to do any real research it’s a better idea to go get a guest pass at the University of Texas library.

      • Carolyn O January 30, 2014 / 2:53 pm

        That does seem to rather negate the point of having a library.

      • whatmeread January 30, 2014 / 2:55 pm

        Yeah, what do they think they are, a book store (actually, our local independent book store, Book People, does a lot better).

      • Carolyn O January 30, 2014 / 3:00 pm

        I love Book People! Also Half Price Books (which we have in Ohio, where I grew up, too). I guess you can tell what I focused on when I visited Austin . . .

      • whatmeread January 30, 2014 / 3:02 pm

        Oh, you’ve been there! I have to watch myself, because every time I go in, I come out with a pile of books. When they built their new building, they visited a bunch of bookstores, and modeled their ambience, not their look, from The Tattered Cover in Denver. Then later, all the big bookstores started putting in chairs and coffee shops, too!

  4. Cecilia January 29, 2014 / 9:57 pm

    Yes, now I’m intrigued too. I’ve been looking at this book for some time, wondering if I should try it…the length is intimidating and I know that some people struggled with it, but knowing that it is a kind of puzzle as well is intriguing. I read an interview with one of the Booker Prize judges and he talked about why they chose The Luminaries – and her inventiveness with the structure was part of it. Now I have a better idea of what he was referring to. Thanks for the review!

    • whatmeread January 30, 2014 / 7:36 am

      I think it is truly readable, and wondering what is going on keeps you reading. Aside from the play with structure, the narration is sort of old-fashioned, third-person omniscient when someone isn’t telling a story.

      • Cecilia January 30, 2014 / 7:46 am

        That sounds great, Kay. I will put this one on my TR list!!

  5. pagesforbreakfast January 30, 2014 / 11:46 am

    This positive review confirms again for me that this is a book I need to read this year!

    • whatmeread January 30, 2014 / 11:46 am

      I hope you like it when you do!

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