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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

The Luminaries

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries is a many-faceted and, in ways, complex book, but that doesn't mean the story is not enjoyable. For those willing to make the effort, it can be a wonderful read. Yes, it's saturated with cross-references to astrological charts, experimentation of form, and word play, all with the stylization of Victorian literature, but I wouldn't say the story is in any way bogged down by these elements. If anything, I'd say these elements are what lift this novel above other such tomes of historical mysteries.

 

If I had only one word to describe Eleanor Catton's second novel, it would be 'impressive'. Sure it's enjoyable and captivating, but what stands out most is the author's ability to shape such a novel. Using astrological charts from the period the novel is set in, Catton creates twelve characters representing the sectors of the zodiac, and another eight to represent the known bodies of the solar system at the time. The characters interactions are based on the movements of these bodies throughout the year. At the beginning of each section of the novel, a astrological chart has been placed, a device which will either delight or infuriate the reader. On top of the astrological positionings, the novel begins at its middle and concludes at its middle, a device which mirrors the meaning of the name of the town central to the story's plot: Hokitika. Each part of the novel is half of its predecessor (I've heard that the word count for each part is exactly half of its predecessor, but I have not confirmed this), leading to a first chapter that is 360 pages (aha!), and a final chapter that is merely 95 words. You see? Quite intricate. And I'm probably missing so much.

 

Despite these clever inclusions, the story is captivating. Now, I'll admit the beginning is a little dodgy as much Victorian literature is—there's just too much to set up to do it briefly. And the end falls apart both in implementation of the aforementioned concepts and in storytelling—it was a lot to carry. But neither of these factors detract from the joy the middle bulk of the book left me feeling. And those willing to do the work, to flip back to the charts and see how everything is fitting together, to study the basics of astrology and see what deeper meanings may be at play, those are the readers that will most likely be rewarded with The Luminaries. A Booker-worthy novel indeed.