70. THE LUMINARIES, BY ELEANOR CATTON
Another recommendation by mysamwise! And I have to say, I liked this one much better... But we’ve already covered that. Onto this one!
Synopsis: Walter Moody, recently almost destitute and at odds with his family, arrives upon the shores of New Zealand hoping to make a fortune on the goldfields. By chance he stumbles on a gathering of twelve individuals discussing some strange occurrences and what they might mean. He is compelled to listen to their stories and to follow those happenings to their conclusion.
Overall enjoyment: It was really good! The story is pretty interesting, and she manages to pull off the formally rigid structure she proposes. That only starts becoming a problem towards the end, but it’s never a major one.
Plot: There are several stories, all interconnected. This part is very well done, in my opinion. She really manages to bring all those strings together and form a whole that makes sense from every angle you look. Personally, I thought those really short chapters towards the end were a bit unnecessary; she could have ended the book before without much loss of content. But then, she would probably have to stray from the form she proposed.
Characters: They are all very well constructed. The only one that doesn’t really feel believable is Francis Carver, who is regarded by everyone as the villain and is so universally feared and despised he feels like a fairy tale devil.
World/setting: New Zealand in the 1800s, during the gold rush. She did a really good job on creating atmosphere: a place where people who, in their original settings, would have been rigidly separated, are suddenly equal, and all the buildings and ventures are somewhat rushed and temporary.
Writing style: I do feel like she had some trouble with the form. Every chapter is exactly half the length of the previous one, and she tries to tie everything with astrological charts and references. I admire writers who can do this kind of thing, it must be incredibly difficult to do, but the first chapters are very long, with lots of exposition and description, and the last ones are very short, with chapter headers longer than the chapters themselves, and feel a bit unnecessary. The astrological references are not essential, either; all the elements are already there, they’re just reinforced by the charts and metaphors.
Representation: As would have been expected for a novel set in the 1800s in a gold rush, there are very few women, and mostly they are talked about rather than having a voice of their own. She does, however, give voices to both Maori and Chinese, which are characters that would have been prevalent at that time and place but would often be overlooked.
Political correctness: Considering everything else she had to worry about when writing this novel, she did a pretty decent job on this category. With Anna, she shows the dichotomy of angel/whore that women are so often subjected to; she comments on the treatment of Maori people; she comments on the treatment of Chinese people; she even manages to comment on the relativity of bigotry, showing Moody impressed (and even bothered) with the equality of the New Zealand society when seeing a white man lighting a cigar for a Chinese man even thought the Chinese man knows that society is not equal at all.
Up next: Death in a Strange Country, by Donna Leon