I finished The Luminaries late last night and my honest first reaction was to be in complete awe of Catton's skill. I don't think I've ever read a book as intricately plotted, with so many relationships between different characters. There are at least sixteen main characters and much of the plot and mystery depends on how they relate to each other, and the things they tell each other, that the other characters aren't necessarily aware of. Not only does Catton manage to keep all of this straight in the mind of the reader, but she also manages to slowly reveal clues and subtly alter our perception of these relationships, to move the mystery on throughout the novel. I can't even begin to imagine how you would go about planning a book as complex as this one, but I am suitably impressed.
I was also very impressed with the writing. The Luminaries is a long book and it's not got the fastest of paces. The writing is Victorian in style, and I found reading it to be a similar experience to reading a good Dickens novel, or like picking up Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The writing lets you really sink into the book and the world of nineteenth century New Zealand. Which is a great place to be; I loved the frontier-like town of Hokitika with all of it's prostitutes, prospectors, illegitimate sons, plotting and gunfights.
So on an intellectual level, I was blown away by The Luminaries and can see why it was awarded the Booker Prize last year. But books are about more than the skill involved in creating them, and thankfully The Luminaries had a good plot as well, with a story that kept me engaged. Although I guessed some of the elements of the mystery, I enjoyed watching the whole thing unravel and just sped through the last two hundred pages, in order to find out what really happened.
If The Luminaries has a flaw, it is in characterisation. I loved the more sinister characters in the novel, Lydia and Frank Carver, as well as the ambiguous character of Anna Wetherell, but some of the thirteen men felt a little flat. I could relate to the Chinese characters because of the way their lives were written about in the book, but with some of the other men, Catton didn't give me any reason to feel attached to them or root for them, meaning that I sometimes felt a bit detached when reading the novel. This stops me from giving The Luminaries 5 out of 5, but it's still one of the best, most impressive novels I've read in a long time. I'll be extremely surprised if this one doesn't make the short-list for the Baileys Prize.
First Published: 2013
Baileys Longlist: Book 3/20
Score: 4.5 out of 5