If critics don’t understand it, why did Catton’s book win a major prize?

Luminaries-coverThis fall, Eleanor Catton released a big beast of a novel, The Luminaries, and picked up the highest honor in literature, the Man Booker Prize  (more important than the Pulitzer or the Nobel, in my humble opinion).

At the time of the prize announcement, I was spending a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms because of a sick family member. So I turned to my iPhone and decided to read the reviews and find out what this prize-winning book is all about.

What I found was very unexpected. Weird, too.

Almost all of the reviews sounded the same ambivalent notes.  A grudging admiration. Confusion. The routine Jamesian reference to bagginess. Shock over the novel’s page count (more than 800). Fault finding. Impatience. Some, like the reviewer at Salon, wrote more about herself than the book. Others seemed tentative and overcautious, like Kirsty Gunn in the Guardian.

(My old haunt, the L.A. Times, didn’t even review the book — wonder how their critics managed to miss it).

I’ll just say it again, my friends. It was weird. Plain weird.

And yet, and yet. In spite of the mixed response from critics, the publisher Little, Brown once again demonstrated why it is one of the few perches in publishing where lucky birds land.

And, where reviews are concerned, one — and only One — by Martin Rubin in the Wall Street Journal, demonstrates what a good review should do.

His review’s very last graf is worth quoting because it accomplishes so much  — a description of one of the novel’s main features (astrology) along with an unobtrusive mention of William Butler Yeats and a sly, passing reference to Jonathan Safran Foer in the very last line:

One especially puckish feature of “The Luminaries”—and one source of its title—is the astrological theme that runs through it. Ms. Catton offers runic charts with signs and astrological “houses” for characters and events. We are shown, for instance, for March 22, 1866, “The House of Self-Undoing,” a wheel carved into 12 parts, each for one of the town’s worthies. One is again reminded of Yeats, with his own charts and astrological mysticism. Yet Yeats was in earnest, while Ms. Catton appears to use the star-mapped sky as an occasional, even ironical, form of commentary, as well as an ornament to her already elaborate plot and mix of characters. In this marvelously inventive novel, nothing is quite what it first appears to be, but everything is illuminated.

In his review, Rubin wears his erudition easily, his turns of phrase are graceful and smooth, and he doesn’t moan and groan as the other reviewers do. Full disclosure: Martin was once one of my regular, go-to reviewers while I was in the paper biz. I always felt that I could depend on him for an elegant, appealing read, even when editorial space was severely limited. It was good to see his Catton review because it made me realize, with a smile, that the bloke hasn’t lost his touch.

6 thoughts on “If critics don’t understand it, why did Catton’s book win a major prize?

  1. Oh man, the WSJ wants me to pay to read the article. They don’t even give me a “grace” number of reads before they want me to subscribe. It sounds like I’m going to have to cave.

  2. Thanks so much for this wonderful introduction and for the links. While there isn’t a chance I’m going to be taking on an 800 page novel any time soon, I do have a friend in Scotland who happens to be a professional astrologer. I’m going to make sure she reads both your post and the reviews. I can’t imagine her not being intrigued and tempted toward reading.

  3. Thanks, Nick. Did the one intelligently drafted review intrigue you to pick up the tome and read it? I’m toying with the idea. 800 pages? Ha! Winter in the UK is a long business. It snowed this morning on the way to my daughter’s school…what did it for me is the fact that reference to astrology is used as an “occasional, even ironical, form of commentary.” Up my street.
    I also wonder whether Rubin was the only one to have read the book?

  4. Greeting OG&B, I’m definitely intrigued to read Catton’s book after Martin’s review of it — and even before, when I first heard a brief caption description of it. A story that mixes magick and the Victorian era is something I’d make time for. That’s the same blend in my own novel which will hopefully make the publishing rounds soon. I’m a slow reader, though, and this sounds like the kind of book best absorbed in long stretches of time. I hope to have some of that around the holidays! Keep me posted if you decide to plunge into the Catton.

  5. Magic and the Victorian era? Goodness! Have you read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke? 1006 pages, my dear friend, and shame on me: despite really enjoying it, I only got to page 141 for some reason (funny how I only just remembered) and shame also that I’m supposed to be making progress with my own novel…so many books, so little time!

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