A sensational start to the year

The Luminaries by [Catton, Eleanor]I started 2017 with a proper brick of a book: Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries. It's huge - a whole 832 pages - but it's no slog to get through, full of intrigue, unique characters, and vivid description. I like it muchly.

To be fair, it's very much my type of book. Victorian sensation fiction would probably be my Mastermind topic, as I read it for pleasure and completed a Master's thesis on one of the dominant authors in the genre, Wilkie Collins. Catton's book references Collins' work in many ways, mimicking the prose style and twisting plot, but is fresh enough to avoid feeling like a direct rip-off. If anything, it's even more convoluted than the works it's inspired by, using the narratives of multiple people to tell the story of missing gold, murder and thwarted ambition.

There's no way to describe the plot briefly. Suffice it to say, when Walter Moody blunders into a private conference on his first day in New Zealand, he could never imagine the conspiracy he has stumbled upon. One of Catton's strengths is in the slow release of information, hinting at potential alliances, dark histories, and character flaws in a way that comes together very satisfyingly when the reveals come. However, you have to pay close attention to every page - not an easy feat when there are so many of them - because piecing together the puzzle is part of the fun, but it is easy to lose track of some of the plot threads. Catton recognises this potential, though, summarising what we've learnt at various points, and finishing up with a fleshing out of the early stages of the story to bring everything together. I can be an inattentive reader, but The Luminaries is structured to guide the reader without patronising them, allowing us to enjoy the style and story without getting lost in the labyrinthine plot.

Some of the more critical reviews did find the the story a little cold - more focused on the clever plot than creating an emotional effect - but I think that's a little unfair on the characterisation on show. There is a big cast of characters but they are all three-dimensional, flawed in some respects, admirable in others: proper human beings, in other words. For all the good and bad they do, the motives are clear and understandable. Only the proper baddies on show can be seen as a bit flat - unless you want to credit them for acting for love - but their charm comes from being lifted almost wholesale from a Wilkie Collins story, full of tropes and characteristics that genre fans will enjoy immensely.

It won't be for everyone, but for those who find some modern fiction a little slight when compared to the grand old style of English storytelling, this is a book to get your teeth into. A hearty literary meal to enjoy on these cold January afternoons.


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