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Rosalea Barker: Thoughts upon reading The Luminaries

Thoughts upon reading The Luminaries

by Rosalea Barker
October 21, 2013

Here’s an idea. Instead of cracking the spine of this weighty tome, hit yourself on the head with it three times. That should produce the same bewildered state of mind that reading its 832 pages does, and save you about 1,000 hours of confusion into the bargain.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a book review. Who am I to review a book when I read so few of them? Least of all purported murder mysteries, where I’m supposed to put in sufficient brainwork to figure out whodunit.

No, my way of pre- judging a book is to thumb through the final chapters first--not to learn the answer to that question, but to see if they’re short or long. Short chapters at the end mean that the author has suddenly realized they’ve blathered on too much and need to wrap the whole thing up lickety-split, but are too lazy to go back and cut the earlier material and too bored with their own work to put equivalent effort into the ending as they did to the beginning and middle.

If they got bored with their own story, it does not augur well for what I’m going to feel about it.

And what about this absurd horoscope affectation at the beginning of every part? It’s as if an editor said, “Well, this is all over the place; we need something to string it together with. I know! If we use horoscopes, we get to throw in some graphics as well, to add to the befuddlement. And somebody, somewhere, sometime will write a Masters thesis or a Doctoral dissertation comparing the celestial charts to the two painted Celestials at the séance, and it will all be so arcane that no one will notice that we just slapped the charts in there like tangled fairy lights off a Christmas tree as an afterthought.”

Like trying to untangle fairy lights, it was a bloody chore reading this book, but I was determined to do it. I even enjoyed parts of it, though I could see that it was really written to be a movie. It’s very The Piano-- all black-sands-and-bodices. The courtroom scene will stage well, as will the carousing. There could be action figures and a theme park with a 4D ride that makes you think you’re variously on a sailing ship, a horse and dray, trapped inside a trunk, caught in a Westland downpour, surrounded by attar of roses, reclining with a pipe in an opium den, sluicing for gold, &c, &c.

Unfortunately, the parts of this book that I really liked—the author’s exposition of the protagonists’ characters—aren’t inherently filmable. But this is a literary work, and has been judged a great one. I would recommend getting it as a text-searchable eBook so that you can sluice back and forth, trying to understand what’s going on, minus the hand cramps from leafing through it.

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton, Victoria University Press, 2013


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