The Greatest Book I Didn’t Understand: The Luminaries

The LuminariesI wasn’t going to read The Luminaries. After its spike in popularity following the Booker Prize, I saw a dozen or so reviews of it and was intimidated by references to it being “intricately plotted” or offering “dazzling complexity.” One blogger suggested to not worry about what was going on until after page 400, then it would start making sense. Another took copious notes to keep track of the shifts in perspective, plot, clues and characters. The setting of the New Zealand gold rush did not particularly interest me, and descriptions of the astrological ordering of the book sounded unnecessarily arcane. At a humdinging 800+ pages, I swore not going to read it for popularity’s sake. No, no thank you.

But then old Amazon put it on a Kindle daily deal for a mere $2.99. I purchased with one-click. Despite a dozen or so unread books on my Kindle and stacks more paper ones vibrating for attention, I was drawn to The Luminaries like a moth to a flame. Like a prospector to an unexplored hillside or creek bed. Like a warrior in search of greenstone. Like an opium addict for the pipe. I started reading and I simply could not stop…

Which says a lot, since I got to the end of the book last night and am still not sure what exactly happened. Catton’s writing is incredibly readable — she is a deeply intelligent and lucid writer. I enjoyed every one of her sentences, even when I had no idea where she was taking me. And one cannot help be absolutely dazzled by what it took to plot this novel. It would be a disservice to her prose skills to say The Luminaries is only about the plot, but certainly, you are aware several pages in that this is a plot to end all plots. I really do think it was her genuinely good writing that made me keep on and on. Also, I believed that blogger who said it would come together after 400 pages. Well, yes, and no.

So what is The Luminaries about? Twelve men meet in a bar and a thirteenth walks in. Who are these men — what is each one’s character and motivation? They are all here to talk about one man who is dead, another who is missing, a woman whose actions on a certain night make no sense, and a fortune in gold of uncertain origins and ownership. We spend the whole novel unraveling this mystery and these characters. I think I got most of it — I often had to go back and reread, searching for clues dropped in earlier chapters. Yet, I am also completely confused about the last 20 pages or so when the chapters are reduced to one page or less and our luminaries themselves move more to the center yet we are given but mere waning crescent of glimpses of them. I sound arcane!

This is the sort of book that easily demands rereading. Also, I can imagine benefiting tremendously from careful note taking and group discussion at various points along the book. Yet, I also think you can read it, as I did, without fretting too much about understanding everything and simply enjoy the writing, the weird and wonderful characters, the setting, and the aha! moments. Still, it left me feeling a bit unsatisfied that I can not better describe what it was about, only that I liked it enough to not be able to stop reading.

ebook copy
Little, Brown and Company, 2013


2 thoughts on “The Greatest Book I Didn’t Understand: The Luminaries

  1. Bellezza says:

    I liked it immensely, too, through all the intricacies of the plot and appearance of characters. What a spectacular feat of Eleanor Catton! I can’t imagine how she wrote it, when reading it required untangling enough. I think you did a marvelous job of reviewing a most complex book.

    And, thanks for the follow. It’s nice to meet you. 🙂


    • RareBird says:

      Thank you, DB! It’s nice to meet you too and thank you for the kind words. I read somewhere that Catton said she often wrote herself into a corner and despaired at ever finding a way to make the Plot of Plots work out. Can you imagine what she’s going to do next?!

      Liked by 1 person

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