Modelled on the style of Victorian novels, The Luminaries is a historical detective novel set in the goldfields of New Zealand in 1865-6. Although it is unclear which novels Catton used as inspiration, the general register, tone, and sensibilities of the characters reflect that period, and The Luminaries is filled with the sorts of moral judgments and excessive descriptive detail which pepper many Victorian works. The story is interesting and Catton’s structure, whereby the history and the truth of events are gradually revealed to the reader, is cleverly managed. Sadly, I have little taste for Victorian novels generally (which is not to say that I dislike all Victorian writers) and often find the style to be indulgent and ill-suited to developing particularly deep or complex characters in a realistic way. I would levy the same charge against Catton here.
This is not to say that The Luminaries is without strengths. The quality of the writing in building a sense of place or describing characters physically is good, and the idea behind the novel’s construction is excellent. Splitting the novel into 12 parts which occupy increasingly little space is a neat way of managing increasingly rapid revelations. A particularly clever technique is Catton’s use of explanatory paragraphs at the start of chapters to tell what is to come: in the early stages the majority of important information comes from the text itself but as chapters get shorter at the end, those paragraphs start to contain more information and interpretation than would necessarily be obvious from the content. It’s an interesting example of an author-figure intervening in her own book. However, this came too late as the bulk of the book contains an excessively large level of detail which, although a strength in a shorter book, was not sufficiently varied or sufficiently well-crafted to sustain itself and I ended up finding it tiresome. I spent a week at page 462 struggling to summon the desire to persist, completely unaware of the curious manipulation of explanatory detail in the last few pages.
Speaking of which, it is telling that in looking over other reviews on The Luminaries, all at some point mention its length. And it does need confronting: the book is long. There appear to be two opinions as to the way in which a book’s length should impact our view of it: the first suggests that a long book needs a good pay-off in terms of its message (“Is it worthwhile to spend so much time with a story that in the end isn’t invested in its characters? Or is thinking about why we should care about them in the first place the really interesting thing?”); the second ignores length altogether with a focus on quality (“And as for the length, surely a book this good could never be too long”). I am much more inclined towards the latter position: if a book is enjoyable for being well-crafted, having a strong and interesting message, or revealing some important aspect of the human condition, I would never begrudge its length. Unfortunately, I don’t think The Luminaries does any of these well enough. So while length doesn’t matter to me per se, this book felt obnoxiously long for not being fun to read.
Despite these gripes, I think I can see why The Luminaries won in 2013: it is hugely ambitious and Catton maintains a distinctive and unusual style. She holds multiple storylines together in a masterful way which is no mean feat. But reading a book should not feel like a chore and the fact that this did shows it just wasn’t for me. I should probably have guessed that on picking up a Victorian-style novel.