Welcome to Conversational Era, a new semi-regular collaborative feature which finds us chatting with readers, authors, & fellow bloggers about a myriad of different subjects.
Today, Michelle Williams joins Aaron for an in-depth spoiler-free discussion about Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker nominated novel The Luminaries.
Michelle Williams is an avid “reader” of books and a “rider” of bicycles. When she is not cycling you can catch her reading and when she is not reading, well, she is probably pedaling about somewhere. Her blog, A Reader and A Rider journals her reviews of literary fiction.
Set in the 1860’s during the height of the New Zealand gold rush, Eleanor Catton’s astrologically-inspired novel The Luminaries, is a wonderfully vivid piece of historical fiction that centers around death of drunkard, the disappearance of wealthy young man, the addictions of a prostitute, and a fortune in stolen gold that may or may not bind them all together.
Aaron: Wow. As much as it pains me to say this, because I loved The Kills by Richard House, The Luminaries deserves to win the Man Booker Prize this year, right? I’ve only read 3 of the 13 longlisters so far, but judging by the ratings that the rest of our fellow BookerMarkers have assigned to them, it doesn’t seem like I’m missing much. I hate to use a bad pun, no I don’t who am I kidding! Eleanor Catton has “struck gold” with this one, no?
Michelle: Yes, Aaron, Eleanor Catton has struck gold! I have read six of the Booker long-listed nominees so far this year and until picking up The Luminaries, I was very disappointed in the judge’s choices. However, by page 55 of Catton’s 756 page novel, I knew that I was reading the winner. Anyone who can incorporate the term “elevenses” as well as ghosts, love, murder, intrigue, mystery and 19 prominent characters into their story deserves to “lay claim” to the Booker.
So, what was your favorite aspect of this great novel?
Aaron: Ha! Let’s see how many bad puns we can jam-pack into this discussion! It’s funny but the things that most annoyed me about The Luminaries are the very things that gradually became so endearing to me.
I’m not generally a fan of novels that open each chapter with a summarization of what’s in store, but here it was brilliant, right up through the last laugh-out-loud “in-case-you-haven’t-been-paying-attention-for-800-pages-here’s-exactly-what-happened” one that closes the book. I initially thought that the way that the chapters were structured was way too formulaic, and perhaps I still do a bit, however the characters are so lush and the mystery is so complex that eventually that doesn’t even matter. Finally, and as you well know, I’m generally not a fan of historical fiction at all, but this book strikes such a great balance between setting, characters, and plot that about 60 pages in I was completely enthralled.
Usually I find that a novelist is either an exceptional writer or an exceptional storyteller, but rarely are they both. With this book Catton has proved, at least in my eyes, that she’s the exception to the rule.
I know The Luminaries is the subject of your upcoming “Why it Will Win” post over at BookerMarks, so I won’t ask you spill any details around what you loved about it. Instead let me turn the question around. Do you think that the fact that Catton hails from New Zealand by way of Canada and the fact that the events of the book take place entirely in New Zealand will ultimately hurt her chances to win? What other flaws do you think may exist that the judges could potentially count against it when determining if it’s worthy of “staking a claim” as the rightful winner?
Michelle: Great question, Aaron. I truly hope that the judges completely throw out all semblance of bias when reading the long listed novels. Race, sex and country of origin should not even be considered at this level of the judging. If Catton being from New Zealand by way of Canada was an issue, The Luminaries should have never made the long list to begin with. Robert Macfarlane, chair of this year’s judges, has said:
This is surely the most diverse longlist in Man Booker history: wonderfully various in terms of geography, form, length and subject. These 13 outstanding novels range from the traditional to the experimental, from the first century AD to the present day, from 100 pages to 1,000 and from Shanghai to Hendon.
The fact that the judging panel is proud of the diversity of the books on the list tends to make me believe that they will be judging on merit and not based upon who you are or who you know.
As you said, this novel was both well written and a great story. Personally, I don’t think it had many flaws. Some readers may have a hard time getting into it at the beginning. I know I only had about 20-30 minutes a day to read for the first week I read the book. With the intricate layering and seemingly endless cast of characters, I had trouble following the story. However, once I was able to sit down and really set aside some time to read, I devoured the book like an addict to opium.
Additionally, some may think that it could have been shorter. At 756 pages (my ebook version), the book could have reasonably concluded after the courtroom scene or shortly thereafter. Catton instead chose to wrap up all the loose ends that may have been left hanging instead of leaving the reader wondering.
Some may also think that the editing could have been sharper by eliminating some of the extraneous information. For example one sentence read:
Pritchard picked up a clout from the laboratory bench and began to clean the dirt from beneath his fingernails – noticing, as he did so, that they were getting rather long.
I loved this type of additional detail. Is it needed to further the story? No, but it works in the character building and the setting of the story. The judges may have found it tedious.
So Aaron, one thing I struggled with, that in my opinion had no reflection on the book, is that it is set up “astronomically”. The reader is given an explanation concerning this framework in a Note to the Reader at the beginning. How do you think this structure affects the book? Do you feel it enhanced or diminished the storyline?
Aaron: That’s a question that I think will be hotly debated. In my opinion your mileage, as the book reading kids love to say, will vary based on a number of factors, including your knowledge of astrology and how well you can read the stars in the night sky. I think that I get what she was going for and it was an ambitious undertaking. You have the murder victim that’s central to the story, a man named Crosbie Wells, representing the Terra Firma (Earth), and then 7 planetary character that revolve around him which are then intertwined with yet another 12 stellar characters which each represent a different star sign. Each section of the book starts with the picture of an astrological chart, and each chapter is named after the current astrological condition, which I can only assume, was researched to match as closely as possible the historical skies of the time period and location. While writing the book I’m guessing that Catton took into account how each character’s horoscope would have influenced their actions at any given moment.
All that said, and impressive as it is, you don’t need to understand a lick of it or take any of it into account in order to enjoy the story. Doing so certainly adds another dimension to the reading, but for me personally it was more of an impressive bonus feature than anything else. I’d love to go back at some point and really pay closer attention to the astrological significance, but you know, 800 pages and so many books, so little time…
Star signs, murder, and gold all play major roles in the novel, so I have to ask you Michelle, what do you think about the cover art? What significance do you think it holds in relation to the story? Does whatever it represents come across better through the UK edition or the slightly more revealing US one?
Michelle: Well, had you not developed an excellent post on all of the long listed cover art, I doubt that I would have ever thought twice about The Luminaries covers. Both the UK cover and the US cover show a picture of a beautiful woman through “peepholes” or “luminaries”. However the UK version is just one line of four luminaries where as the US cover has a 4×3 grid of luminaries that expose a little more of the same beautiful woman. In both, the line of four luminaries must represent the four main phases of the moon. On the US cover, I think that Little Brown decided to illuminate our beautiful woman by using the 4×3 grid to symbolize the twelve signs of the zodiac in which the novel is prominently organized and to also illuminate more of Anna who we will come to know more intimately as the novel progresses.
With 19 distinctly different characters there were many to like and a handful to dislike. Who was your favorite and who was your least favorite?
Aaron: That’s such a tough question to answer. I think my opinions of each one of them kept changing over the course of the novel as new information about them came to light. I went back and forth for a very long time between liking and hating the prostitute Anna. She’s probably the character that I felt jerked around (in a good way, but not, *ahem*, related to nature of her profession) by emotionally. I could never get a clear read on her, and of course it’s to Catton’s credit as a writer that she kept me interested the girl’s story throughout, even when I despised her. For this reason she was probably my favorite.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was Ah “Johnny” Sook. Even though he played an critical role in the overall plot, he came off as extremely one-dimensional to me. Everyone else seemed to change over time, but his repeated fumblings and miscommunications combined with his one-track mind really slowed things down for me.
That said, with a whopping 19 characters to contend with, Catton did a commendable job in keeping them all interesting and unique. Early on I had a little trouble keeping track as they were each first introduced, but once she got rolling I never had to look back or question “Who is this person again?”
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Award. It is currently available in the UK from Granta and will be released in the US by Little, Brown and Company on October 15th.
Michelle Williams has been blogging about cycling and reading on her blog A Reader and a Rider since 2010 and is a founding member of the BookerMarks project, which is a yearly collaboration between 8 bloggers who shadow the Man Booker Award and try to predict the winner. So far, they’re 1-for-1.