I said I would be reading The Luminaries forever but, in fact, I already finished a while ago. Not only does it pick up towards the end but also, well, I read fast. (Careful: there be spoilers. I don’t think it matters so much in a book like this but hereby you’re warned.)
It is quite a feat of a book, not least so because the author is 28 and already got a Booker Prize for it (I can’t still get over her age – I find it somewhat disturbing). But most of all, it’s such a constructed book.
All the characters are paired with celestial bodies: zodiac constellations, planets, the sun and the moon; the arrangements of these bodies (I’m assuming real historical arrangements on given dates because that makes it even more insane) determine, more or less, which characters interact in a given chapter. This works or not, depending whether you like your books riddle-like. I didn’t mind at all and enjoyed figuring out which body each character represents. It’s not so difficult, as you are given charts at the beginning of each chapter, but there are minor challenges. And the solution of the main mystery actually lies in understanding that (spoiler, spoiler) the sun and the moon change places during the story. That made me smile but I think it also illustrates what’s not perfect in the book. I mean, the solution lies in figuring out a metaphor. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
When you hear of a book constructed to such an extent, you may well expect it to be also rather cold – and yes, I agree with you, oh observant imaginary reader. I found The Luminaries truly impressive, quite enlightening (frankly, if you’d asked me a month ago if there’d ever been gold rush in New Zealand, you would’ve found me quite evasive) but only barely emotionally moving. You don’t care very much for the characters and their plights because most of them are just sketched and never become more than pawns in the author’s game. If the whole construction came together with a moving story, I would’ve been wowed (and, honestly, perhaps a little depressed that a 28-year-old could do that). But I accept the book for what it is: a literary game.
With this assumption, you can enjoy multiple aspects of the novel. First of all, it quite adeptly fits in with the books trying to rebuild the glory of a nineteenth-century novel. With its richly drawn world and a plethora of characters, it’s almost entirely successful. My only qualm is the already mentioned one, that the characters, with few arguable exceptions, remain paper dolls. I’ll admit I even mixed them up sometimes and, geek alert, for almost a half of the book I read with a chart of their names to make sure I get them right. On the other hand, the vision of the town and its hotels stayed with me.
The second thing that works is exactly the intellectual game, which on a certain level is, well, possible to follow, even if you know absolutely nothing about astronomy and could name nothing but Orion when it comes to constellations. Even some big questions, like what happens to the blackguard Carter, you are allowed to guess through a sort of belated foreshadowing. Another novel would have told you, even if you’d already guessed. Yet another would make it so vague you would never know for sure. Me, I like exactly this kind of challenge, but then again I’m not the most exciting person to hang out with.
And I’m sure there was at least a third enjoyable thing but it eludes me. See, I felt obliged to write about The Luminaries because it’s one of the more important books I’ve recently read but when I got down to it, I discovered nothing delighted or infuriated me about this book enough to pour out in a review. It was mostly proper and writing about proper things is not that exciting.
PS. The third thing I loved is the cover. I’m not going to do much design critique here but – Is it a great idea or is it an inspired idea?