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Thursday, September 04, 2014

Book Review: The Luminaries by Elanor Catton

The Luminaries by Elanor Catton

Book Review:
The Luminaries
by Elanor Catton
Little, Brown and Company, published October 15th, 2013

   The 1001 Books to Read Before You Die edition I own stops in 2005.  That is almost a decade of reading to account for.  The Luminaries caught my eye as the type of book editors might select based on it being a winner of the Man Booker Prize, and written by a 20 something author, who is female and is also from New Zealand.  If there is one thing I've learned from the 1001 Books series is that they are looking to incorporate diverse viewpoints in terms of race, gender and ethnicity.   The Luminaries is essentially an old-west detective story, set on the west coast of New Zealand in the 1860s.

   The detective novel itself was not invented, but popularized in 1868 by The Moonstone, written by Wilkie Collins.  Collins was a cohort of Charles Dickens and very much immersed in the same milieu: The Moonstone was published in serial form first, and bears many of the characteristics of the writing of that period: long digressions, a surplus of plot and character and a fondness for the Eastern/ Exotic/Spiritual/Supernatural.
    I'm not sure one would have to be familiar with the history of detective and horror fiction in the mid to late Victorian period to fully appreciate Catton's accomplishment, but I think the pull quote on the product page nails it: "Catton has built a lively parody of a 19th-century novel, and in so doing created a novel for the 21st, something utterly new." - New York Times Book Review.

   Thus, if you aren't familiar with this literary genre, you won't appreciate the parodic element of The Luminaries, and might be left with the impression that Catton is writing a straight forward, albeit accomplished, piece of genre fiction.  This world is explored in The Maniac in the Cellar, a book I read back in June- but the gist is that the world of the supernatural and detectives overlapped in the 1860s, and spiritualism was very much en vogue as well.   Thus, The Luminaries manages to avoid any kind of anachronistic plot points while also updating the style of prose to avoid the excesses of the mid 19th century sensationalists.

   The 800 page length might seem excessive, but again, by the standards of the mid 19th century novel, and the sensationalist genre, she has created something that would take well to the serial format of that period, which emphasized length and incident.  In other words she has created something along the lines of the best of both worlds, and done it so subtly that it is entirely possible to buy, read, enjoy, and publicly comment upon The Luminaries without even being aware of that level of development.

  In the sum total, The Luminaries is both a summer beach type page turner and a literary achievement, recalling many of the strengths of the pre-modern novel while incorporating a variety of tips and tricks from the modernist writers and their ilk.

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