Last week, Freight Books read…

The Luminaries by Eleanor CattonThe Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, published by Granta. This book is a whopper and no mistake. At 832 pages it is certainly in the awkward to read in bed category, but would probably keep you afloat if you happened to be shipwrecked off the coast of New Zealand in the 19th century. This doesn’t happen in the book, despite it being set in New Zealand in the 19th century and concerned in large part with boats and the sea, but has proved a useful bridging sentence to the content. However, I’m not interested in this bridge, because I haven’t finished talking about the length of this book. It is important. The bridge can wait.

Over a splendid supper of baked potatoes at the weekend, when I was still a couple of hundred pages from the end, I was telling some friends about how I was enjoying the book, despite it being very long, and one (whose name shall remain shrouded in mystery) said the following (or close to it, anyway):

I wonder if the longer a book is, and the further into it you read, the more you decide you are enjoying it because you have to rationalise the massive amount of time sunk into it.

He is much more eloquent than that, but I wanted the quote to fit on three lines. This is an excellent idea, and I can certainly think of books where this has been the case, but I have to say that despite all those hundreds of pages, I was really enjoying Catton’s tome. The writing is beautiful, compelling and almost overpowering – if it wasn’t for the sheer size I would have found it hard to put down. The first six hundred pages contain a brilliant story, too; murder, blackmail, a missing man and a suddenly wealthy opium addict has stirred up tensions in a growing gold mining town, and twelve men have gathered in the room of a hotel to try to work out what is going on. Who they are, and what they know, is unknown to us, and they wouldn’t want to tell us, but then in steps Walter Moody, fresh off the boat and with a tale to tell himself, an unknowing and unwanted thirteenth at the party. However, soon he earns their trust, and one by one they tell him the small fragments each man knows, which fit together into slightly larger pieces which still don’t make a whole. You, as reader, are left guessing right up till the last minute. That is storytelling, that is. But did she really need to write quite so much? Looking back, I’m not sure she does.

proof that the luminaries is equal to three standard books

might even be able to fit in a fourth…

Added to this, the story that I was interested in finished about two hundred pages before the end of the book. And those last two hundred pages were a struggle because of it. Before I get on to more good stuff about the book, I’d also like to add this disclaimer: I don’t know much about astrology, at all, and certainly nothing about the solar happenings of this time period. I’m sure Catton does, that the astral charts at the beginning of each chapter means something important to the plot, and that the star sign of each character in the novel influences their personality, but I simply didn’t see it. Aside from the foreword and a couple of pages at around the 350 mark there is no other direct allusion to what the planets are really up to, and to be honest I couldn’t give a fig. However, I think that it is this astrological structure that is at the heart of the length problem of this novel (the twelve characters who meet in the pub each have a different sign of the zodiac, I believe). Without it, Catton could have got away with seven principle characters, say, and the whole book could have been a more manageable length. I don’t believe that these suggestions are unfair  I still believe that it is brilliant writing, but should one book be so commanding of my reading time when there are around 150 000 books published in the UK alone each year? In short, there is loads of good literature out there, I want more of it, and I simply don’t think at heart a murder mystery should hog more time than it needs, no matter how good it is. This may be a bit unfair.

And it is unfair, because I really was captivated by the life of this town, and by each character’s personality, and felt very involved with the characters. I have heard that the BBC is adapting this, and maybe that is how it should be taken in; as a visual feast, in hour-long chunks, over seven or so weeks. Or maybe as an audio book, to be listened to when washing up.

In short, and I know I have gone on and done a bit of a rant, I am torn. I loved the book (sans the final chunk) but it was also the length of three standard-length novels, and I’ll never catch up on those.


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