I must admit my bias before I begin the review. I loved The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Well thought out, impeccably written and clever. After reading it I believed that Catton was a genius in our midst (and a young one at that!). All that makes for a very hard act to follow. The Luminaries, Catton’s sophomore novel, is one of the most anticipated books of the season. Indeed, it has made the shortlists for the Man Booker Prize and the Governor General of Canada’s Award for Fiction. But can it live up to its anticipated greatness?
From the first page of The Luminaries I knew the writing was great It grabbed me and took me away. As the novel continued I picked up on noticeable stylistic differences from her earlier work: The Luminaries reflects the time, the late 1800s, in which it is set, it is much more straight forward than The Rehearsal, and much more detailed and descriptive.
The story itself takes place during the Gold Rush in New Zealand at the end of the 19th century. From that perspective it is a frontier story and reminiscent of a Western, an area I tend to stay away from in my reading. If it had been written by anyone other than Catton I would not have picked it up. For me the novel was saved to a certain extent in its telling as it unravels somewhat like a Victorian Era or Agatha Christie mystery. Each character brings their own perspective to bear on the unfolding of events. At various points, though I liked what I had read, I thought how is this going to carry on for another 500 hundred pages?
And that is my main complaint about The Luminaries. It was just too long. I can’t imagine having written it. With each character that contributes to the story new details and layers are revealed. The planning that had to have gone into it is amazing. And yet for all that work, I still wonder if it could have been shorter.
Who would like this book? Simply because of the length, The Luminaries is a commitment. You are not going to plow through this book no matter how much time you have to dedicate to it. I would also suggest that this novel is perfect for one who revels in the detail. I am more of a big picture thinker, so although The Luminaries had much to offer in that direction, I think I became too bogged down in the minutia of each character’s perspective. This book would also appeal to those who like good literature, as it’s many nominations attests to. But when the question come to whether or not I would recommend this book, I would have to say no. Instead, I demand that you read The Rehearsal. It is brilliant and of a much more manageable size.