Winner of the 2013 Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award
Was I surprised that a crime novel won the Booker prize last year? Not really. Stuart Kelly, one of the judges, had revealed his penchant for literary crime at a Bloody Scotland event the year before. I had an inkling …..
Was I surprised that an historical novel took the prize for the second year running? I was, although I realise that the judges weren’t having a The Luminaries vs Bring up the Bodies debate. Although now that I have finished, I am. Catton’s novel isn’t winning.
The crux of my problem is this. I didn’t approach The Luminaries in the right way. I had a copy and, after hearing Catton speak at last summer’s Edinburgh Book Festival about how a major concern was to make this novel an entertaining read, I was looking forward to reading it immensely. Then I was offered a review copy of the audio book, which I accepted.
I began mid-October of last year. It’s a massive undertaking particularly when I only listen to audiobooks when driving. A 20 minute commute to work, 40 minutes per day, 5 days a week. I reckoned that it would take about 8 weeks to work my way through it. Except that I never felt like listening the way home (concentration levels zilch after work) and then there were times when I didn’t feel like listening it at all ….. because in places it was just taking too long to get anywhere. This book is not designed to be listened to in 20 minute snatches when concentrating on the roads; it is a book requiring long periods of attention, during which the reader or the listener can savour, even delight in the resurrection of the 19th century adverb and the author’s cleverness.
How do I know? Because I got home on the 30th of December and I still had about 10 hours listening time remaining. At that rate, it would be time for the next Edinburgh Book Festival and I’d still be listening to it! So I decided to read to the end. I was disheartened to realise that, after 2 months, I had only reached page 478. Still 350 pages to go.
3 reading sessions (about 4 hours) and I finished it on New Year’s Day! This confirmed that a) I had approached it all wrong; b) if I’d read it, it would have probably taken me a week to 10 days to read cover to cover, and I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more. This is taking nothing away from Mark Meadows’s reading, which is excellent, very listener-friendly, but ill-suited to the short bursts of attention I was giving his performance.
Much has been made of the structure. I’m going to ignore the astrological references – of which there are many, some overt, others hidden, and which I find regrettable. I will, however, concentrate on the golden spiral; the rules of which dictate that each section must be half the length of the preceding. In practice, the first section is 170,000 words (360 pages) long, and the 12th section only 96 words. I admire the cleverness of this but it does mean that the beginning sections of the book do go on … and on … and on. If you love Dickens and Trollope, this is for you. If not, you must persevere because there is a payback ….. eventually. I haven’t seen this mentioned elsewhere but there comes a point (page 700) when the forward motion of the story stops and we begin to go backward in time. That transition is seamless and from here on in, all the missing pieces of the jigsaw appear; questions are answered, not always explicitly, it is true, but that is entirely in keeping with Catton’s ethos of a literary crime novel.
Anyway, I have reached the end to find myself in a state of ambivalence. I enjoyed the modern take on the 19th century epic in which Catton throws away the decorum of the originals, exploring in detail themes that could only be mentioned obliquely in those days. I enjoyed too the packaging of the novel that is both reminiscent of its ancestors yet highly original. At times though the packaging got in the way and I found myself thinking, is this a case of all style and no substance? I don’t find myself quite believing that accusation though, even if not able to speak coherently for the defence. And so I break my new reviewing rule (only to review 4-star reads or above) with my first “review” of 2014. Heck, I worked hard to get to the end page. For that reason alone the moment deserves to be recorded for posterity.