Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, Recommended Drinking List and Wordy Review

Recommended Drinking List:

Brandy (several mentions)
Central Otago pinot noir (New Zealand’s famous wine region mentioned casually on pg 281 but we’ll take it)
Monteith’s Gold (It’s all about NZ gold after all)

The Luminaries cocktail:
Two Long Island iced teas poured into a yard glass with a dead spider in the bulb, because like the book it’s good but long and goes a bit wrong towards the end.


This review brought to you by a generous glass of Chatelle Napoleon brandy. Chatelle Napoleon: when you want to feel classy on a budget.

‘The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidently met’
so begins The Luminaries and our inaugural meeting of The Drunk Book Club, a warm place with liberal doses of literature, booze and wardrobe malfunctions. Cheeky fun as all that sounds the question put to anyone reading this would be if it’s worth reading the groups reviews or listening to the 80 odd minutes of gargled audio as people try to talk and drink at the same time, to which all I can really say to that is if you’ve always wanted to read/hear soft-core literary criticism with liberal use of the word ‘fuck’ and fart jokes then congratulations, you’ve successfully navigated yourself to the new world, sorry about all the commas.
Actually I lied before, shaky start to the relationship I know, but The Luminaries doesn’t actually begin with the above italics, it starts off with a character chart, an astrological chart and a note to the reader assuring them that the astrological signs and movements beginning each chapter are totally accurate so you can put away your tarot cards and sextant because Eleanor Catton has that shit covered friend. My first reaction to this was ‘clappity-calp, way to immediately alienate your audience, Book’. However as I read on I began thinking that the astrological charts, among other things, were an intentional attempt at alienation through disassociation, causing the audience to step back and view the book with a greater objective emphasis as the story at the heart of The Luminaries is a mystery. Each chapter starts with an introduction explaining what happens within that chapter which calls to mind the techniques of Bertolt Brecht as do other elements such as directly addressing the audience as ‘we’ and the blanking of curse words, seemingly there to remind the audience that they’re reading a book and to keep emotional connection with characters at arm’s length in order to focus on the story as a whole and because the true main characters are either missing or dead and bloody hell that was a load of pretentions wank so just to balance that out here’s a video of a cat farting.

As mentioned all of one hundred and four words ago The Luminaries is primarily a mystery following the stories of enough lead characters to get a spirited game of volley ball going as they piece together the clues of a disappearance, a dead hermit and an unexplained fortune on the goldfields of New Zealand and for the most part I was totally on board and enjoying the ride. Like watching puzzle pieces having sex seeing everything fit together was quite engaging and taking on new information to reform my guesses at who did what to whom was great fun up until around page 600 when everything seems more or less sorted out but you’ve still got 200 more pages to go. For a while I wondered if Miss Catton was getting kickbacks from big paper because at the tail end of the book things start getting shorter and shorter until the chapter descriptions become longer than the chapters themselves and every second page is a star chart that most people will gleefully ignore. It was upon finishing the book that I visited that modern oracle Wikipedia to see what it had to say and discovered that the twelve parts of the book are set in length so that they reflect the cycles of the waning moon, which is clever and all but I really feel that it’s to the books detriment as it’s giving itself less and less to work with while trying to build a crescendo. A device that does nothing to add to the experience is the writing equivalent of a white elephant or an Xbox Kinect if you’re a massive nerd.
Also after 600 pages of realistic period drama an element of magic pops up, casually wiggles its bum then scurries off into the subtext so while it’s not present enough to be a deal breaker it is about as expected and welcome as someone trying to play a Pokémon card to win a game of Risk.

I feel like I’ve been ripping on the negative sticking points a little too much but if I have it’s because The Luminaries is otherwise a superb book. It’s central premise is interesting, it’s characters are real and varied and it’s writing is polished to almost a mirror shine but that just makes the few negatives stand out all the more. What I’m getting at here is that The Luminaries is a well written and well researched book but its insistence of keeping the focus on its mysteries and lunar devices at the expense of its characters and the pacing of the story itself leaves things a bit dry and underwhelming towards the end because once it’s played its hand it has nothing left to do except tie up a few loose ends and sweep up a bit which isn’t an inherently bad trait except that the tying and sweeping takes up about a quarter of the book. It’s like watching a magician perform one really good trick and then finish by artfully and skilfully filing out his tax return.

This metaphor saturated review was written by
Ben Calloway
for The Sexy Drunk Book Club