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David Sexton on The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton


YOU KNOW what it’s like when you find a book you really can’t put down? One that seems so urgent to stay with you carry on reading when you should be sleeping or working or remembering your Tube stop? A book that seems more compelling than life itself? Such a great feeling!

Well, Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker-winning 832-pager, The Luminaries, is the opposite — in my experience, anyway.

I first tackled it in the summer, taking it on holiday. I was looking forward to getting into a really long book without pressure on my time. But I read about 150 pages and gave up in exasperation at its conceit and verbosity and got someone else to review it.

I stand reproved. A fortnight ago The Luminaries became the longest novel ever to win the Man Booker and Catton, 28, the youngest-ever winning novelist.

Long novels are having a moment. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch clocks in at 771 pages of much smaller type than The Luminaries and I liked that a lot. Les Mis has just been published in a spiffy new translation called The Wretched (1,416 pages). Courage! I decide to try The Luminaries again.

I couldn’t face carting such a heavy object to and fro every day, so I bought it as an e-book. This made it transportable but much harder to refer back and forth in. Moreover, a Kindle measures your progress by percentages, and in the case of The Luminaries that means you can read for ages without seeming to make progress at all. It finds your place for you, though — there is that.

The Luminaries is set in the New Zealand goldfields in 1865 and 1866.  Hidden within its ornate structure there’s a pretty melodramatic story involving blackmail, forgery, smuggling, mistaken identities, a mysterious disappearance, theft, murder, an opium den, a true-hearted whore, secret correspondences, a spooky séance and a trial. It sounds like it should be at the very least the “rip-roaring read” that one reviewer claimed, if not the novel Wilkie Collins might have written had he been around in New Zealand at the time.

It’s far from that, though. These gamey events are no more than pretexts for what Catton is really interested in: structural elaboration. She has constructed this novel using astrological charts — yes, really.

Still, maybe once you get into the story it carries you along regardless? I sincerely hoped so. I’m far from averse to long novels if they’re good enough to earn their length — I’ve read Proust (more than 4,000 pages) twice, very slowly, in French. One way or another I probably read at least 832 pages most weeks.

I started The Luminaries from the beginning again, last Sunday morning. At once I remembered what I objected to so strongly back in the summer. The prose style is annoying, a pastiche of the omniscient narrator, a confident “we”, a device used successfully by some great 19th-century novelists but which now seems an intolerable affectation.

Catton never shows, she tells, wagging on in the most officious way. She has a particularly dismaying habit of telling us what the characteristics of every personage are, before then making them conform to them, a sure-fire way of killing any curiosity. Ten per cent does for me today.

But I persevere: on the bus, on the Tube, standing in queues.

Wednesday. I am nearly halfway now and getting steadily crosser. It strikes me that Catton is a juvenile Kiwi A S Byatt. So it’s 55 per cent by bedtime. Alcohol units: let’s say 15.

Thursday, I shirk, I skive; Friday, I soldier on: 78 per cent! Or to put it another way, page 628. By now, the main mysteries have been resolved —and our luminaries, our star-crossed lovers, have been revealed and their first meeting related, the most charming passage in the book so far.

Sunday, 8am: 100 per cent! The bath has overflowed but I’m free. What remained, it emerged, was a lot more filling in of the back story to bring us up to the point at which the story started many words ago.

For this novel consumes itself. It is “an ourobouros of mind” — the ourobouros being a serpent that eats its own tail, an ancient symbol of eternal return and self-recreation. “We were of our own making and we shall be our end,” the narrator tells us. Whatevs, I feel at this point.

Let’s concede that The Luminaries is a stunning feat of construction. The Booker judges knew, whatever else its merits, they were giving the prize to a tremendously technically accomplished piece of work. I suspect some exhausted reviewers praised it for the same reason. It doesn’t necessarily make it any good, of course. A ship made of matchsticks in a bottle is a feat of construction but not necessarily a great work of art.

The Luminaries sold 2,970 copies after being Booker shortlisted. Since winning, Catton’s publisher, Granta, has printed 100,000 more. How many of those that are bought will be read to the end? One out of 10?

Catton has said: “People whose negative reaction has been most vehement have all been men over about 45,” possibly stereotyping herself. It’s not entirely true: one of the sharpest reviews was by the New Zealand-born novelist Kirsty Gunn, in her early fifties (“The problem is that as we read on, we don’t read in … ”).

That’s me, though. Bang to rights. A man. Over 45. And what being so disgraced reveals to you is that time is short, too short to waste. Or to have it wasted.

This article originally appeared in the London Evening Standard on 20/10/13

Read all reviews for The Luminaries

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