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review 2014-01-04 22:03
The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton

I have read books with higher page counts than The Luminaries, for sure. Regardless, this may be the longest book I've ever read. I've stopped paying attention to what other books have been released recently. I've forgotten everything else I read in 2013. That there were other books in existence, I gave no thought of. I have been reading, and reading and reading The Luminaries. It is, as of this afternoon, finished. I can move on to the growing pile on my nightstand, enhanced by Christmas presents and my husband's recent reads that he places there so we can talk about them. We haven't talked about a book in months. I was reading the Luminaries, and I needed time to think. 

I complained - a lot - on how it dragged endlessly in the middle, on how inconsistent the narration was, on how I felt I got the authors notes for the novel as well as the novel itself. To friends, on the Facebook, and at the dinner table. (I've been complaining a lot lately, though - prompting my father, over Christmas dinner, to issue one of his famous bon mots, namely, that I suffer at an elite level. I am desperately in need of an attitude adjustment for the New Year and have found at least one resolution for 2014.) 

It took me two months to finish- far longer than many of my fellow readers- to read this book, and I am assured that everything meaningful about plot and the reader's feelings have been said. What this experience has taught me is this: novels built on elaborate structural motifs rarely are published with out a few seams showing, but are worth the effort regardless. David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which I read immediately before The Luminaries, was also built on sort of a pyramidal structure and, though it did not collapse under the weight of this device, showed a few cracks.The Luminaries, likewise, displays patches and cracks, for example towards the end, the italicized chapter introductions take the place of exposition as the length of each chapter wanes to fit the structural imperatives . . . . AND STOP THE PRESSES. Because in reviewing this review before I hit publish, a small spark began to smoulder in the back of my brain. And then exploded. I deleted 500 words of drivel. Three stars just got changed to five or ten -(12!). (Not that it matters.) I'm going to be up all night digging through this book again. EUREKA! As they say in a gold field. I've got it! It all f*cking makes sense! And damn the damn comments about inconsistency and structural imperatives and dragging on and on and on (let's stop here and face it - immediate gratification of our entertainment needs is not what all novels are for) - it all has purpose. And I think I've seen it, and now, if you can imagine fiction beyond narratives and sentences beyond aesthetic arrangements of words, if you can imagine that the shape of prose has purpose, if you can believe, for just a second, that not ever story has a beginning, middle and end. . . read this book. IT drags on and on in the middle. It is dense. You will hear the same things about the same people over and over and over again and instead of throwing your hands in the air please, just please, imagine that that may be the point. This isn't the super high quality linear-narrative historical fiction that you were told it was. (nor is it, I may add, inventing any new trope or structure or narrative type - it has just borrowed several of them to construct an elaborate 'sky wheel' of a structure). It is something else entirely. 

The Luminaries was sold as a new Possession, which though both are grand, are nothing like one another. If The Luminaries reminds me of any other novel that I've read, it is most like Kate Atkinson's Life after Life, but collapses the conceit of that novel into one plane in space-time. 

In another 24-hours, I may reconsider the impetuousness of this review and delete the whole thing. Until then, I hope you enjoy this fine novel. Highly recommended.

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