The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton


Is it possible for a book of 800+ pages to make you wait more than 500 pages for some feeling of it ‘kicking in’?


Is it possible for a book to be almost stupefyingly boring for more than half of it, for it only to start to spin faster and faster on some centrifuge so that by the last page, you have been gripped and drawn inwards, and are almost breathless and rigid with joy while reading those last few words?


Is it possible for a book to lose your attention not once but several times, so that you put it to the side and read – from cover to cover – maybe four or five other books?


It is possible that a book you were on the verge of giving away, and about which you had said things like ‘it’s killing me’ and ‘I just don’t get it’ and ‘this book is so fucking confusing’, still made you want to finish it like no other book you’ve ever read?


This is the book. I am full of awe for Catton’s application of form, and for how she somehow made me finish this book. It’s a book filled with trickery – sparkles – sleight of hand – and a thing that lives somehow on its own. It’s so quiet, it rocks you to sleep for most of the reading experience, and it does seem to me that it’s the experience of reading this book that is the greater thing here.

I know this is hyperbole but man, it’s what I’m feeling right now. It’s a sneaky sneaky fucker of a thing, and magic in the way that its very long tail whips right around a corner at the end, and slaps you over the head. It wakes you up, for you have fallen almost into coma, the words sliding across your eyes. You’re not taking anything in. Who the hell is he again? (Check the front page reference). And who is that? What is she doing? (Check the front page reference again. Blame heatwave. Brain is not working. Usually it works better than this.) That front page reference doesn’t really help – it’s like a whisper, so faint; you know you are meant to be getting something, but what, what? It’s like there is water across your eyes, something plugging your ears.

You give up, almost, and then someone on twitter says it’s a fabulous book.

But, you want to say, and finally you do: But didn’t you find it really hard to follow?

Someone else on twitter goes yes, so hard to follow! I want to give up. I don’t get it!

Something has taken you by the hand, something that reached out from page 509 or so. You go back to that page to check what it was, and you CAN’T SEE IT. It doesn’t matter, you race to the end. You start to feel glimmers of understanding, but you know it’s only a fraction of the whole.

You finish. You flirt with the idea of going back to the beginning, reading that first half again. Now you will understand more, see more. It’s like the gold in the river, the colour almost blending with the soil. You think you see something, but no. A trick of the light. A sparkle of nothing. But yes, there it is. There is something.

I am exhausted and exhilarated, and a little bereft. And yes, I am perverse.

The Luminaries. I recommend and I caution. It’s an absolute motherfucker of a thing.


UPDATE – thanks, in part, to David Hebblethwaite mentioning this post on twitter, I can see that lots of people have come to read it over the last couple of days. Here is David’s take on The Luminaries, from his blog Follow the Thread. A lot more articulate than mine.

10 thoughts on “The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

  1. This made me laugh. I should have written a review like this rather than struggle to work it all out. So glad I’m not the only one who had trouble keeping a grip on who did what to whom when.

    1. It’s not a review it’s a response. That’s what I’m saying anyway. I can’t do reviews that are serious and properly formed. This way I can just gush, as long as I don’t spoil things for readers with giving away things…

    1. I think that’s where I step out of being pure reader and into reading something as a writer, marvelling at how an author is going about things. And a writer by nature is incredibly persistent and has good stamina. I also have a lot of time for reading, luckily. Also, there was something specific about this book that made me stick it, where I have given up with others. I believe that’s part of the genius of the book, for me anyway.

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