Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Book Group

The first meeting

I have read many hundreds of books but never belonged to a reading group. I'm not a belonging-to-a-group sort of person, really. I like to get on with things in my own quiet way. However, when I saw the list of groups on offer in the newly formed U3A (University of the Third Age) in the village, I decided to sign up for a book group as well as gardening, craft, genealogy, local history and strolling (as distinct from walking and rambling).

I went along to the first meeting in the local library not really knowing what to expect.There were five of us, ranging in age from late sixties to mid-eighties, plus Rowena, the convener of the group. She had emailed each of us, asking us to be prepared to speak briefly about a book of our choice as we hadn't yet been issued with a group book. 

The first person to introduce her book had chosen Rose Tremain's Merivel: A Man of His Time. Unfortunately, she misunderstood the request to speak briefly and gave a detailed description of background, plot, character and style, reading long passages to illustrate her points. This took up so much of our hour that there was little time for the rest of us to speak and no time at all for discussion. Among the other books chosen were Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and Daughter's-in-Law by Joanna Trollope. I had chosen one of my favourite comfort reads for the depth's of winter: Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April. I was greatly surprised to find that no-one else had heard of the book or the author. I tried to keep an open mind about the company I was about to keep!

Rowena then indicated a pile of extremely large books on a side table - veritable tomes! These were our copies of the first group book.
The response was interesting. Margaret grunted, "I'm not reading that!" Kay, who has severe arthritis in her hands said, "I can't carry that to my car." The rest of us were struck speechless at the thought of getting through more than 800 pages over the Christmas period with family and friends arriving any day but we picked up our books and headed for home. The only male member of the group proved to be a perfect gentleman and carried Kay's book to the car park for her; I have no doubt that lugging two copies of The Luminaries half way across the village should earn him a knighthood.

 The book

(Warning - spoiler ahead!)

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton was published by Granta in 2013 and won the Man Booker Prize that year. It is 832 pages long and a heavy, cumbersome book to handle. Not one for reading on the beach or the train. 

My first impression was that it was a historical novel with a murder mystery at its heart. The story is set in 1866 in the goldfields of New Zealand. The syntax, clothing,setting and dialogue are all appropriately Victorian and I settled down to a "sensation novel" in the style of Wilkie Collins. I soon discovered that this atmosphere, like everything in the book, changes as the story progresses.

I realised very early in the first chapter that this was to be a shaggy dog story. However, it is a beautifully crafted one, a well-written and compelling page-turner. Even though I realised that Ms Catton was making a fool of me, I reluctantly admired her audacity and skill.

This might easily have been a historical novel: there is plenty of authentic detail about life in the gold rush; it could equally have been a murder mystery but the circular and contradictory nature of the investigations rules that out. It has intrigue, double-dealing, mysterious deaths, prostitution, drugs and even a little romance but all of these threads are so interwoven and unfinished that it becomes obvious that it isn't a book with a plot at all.

There are lots of prominent characters in the story. Each is introduced in great detail and each has a story to tell and yet we can't get to grips with any of them. Each revelation means that we know them less well than the last time we encountered them. So, it isn't a book about characters or character. In most novels, the characters develop but in The Luminaries, they unravel.

The more I read, the less I knew or understood. The astrological tables, the detailed historical and geographical setting, the complex characters and the intricate plot all end in insignificance. In the end the plot slips away and neither the characters nor the events matter. Nothing has any substance.

The Discussion

When we met at the beginning of January, the discussion was very lively. Margaret, true to her threat, hadn't read the book at all. Kay had found it very difficult to physically handle the book because of its size and weight but had persevered. Two new members, joined us, a married couple who had read the book together and had spent a lot of time on the Internet checking up on the facts presented in the story; their most interesting discovery came from putting some of the pieces of Chinese and Maori dialogue into an on line translator and finding they were utter nonsense.

Several people believed that they had read a murder mystery and were satisfied that it all made sense in the end. Most felt as I did, that a very talented writer had used her considerable skills to produce an elaborate spoof. She won the Man Booker prize; it would be fitting if they had paid her in fool's gold.


  1. Fascinating...I've never heard of it. Prizes for books should not make me wary but they do... somehow I don't believe this one will make my tbr list and I'm thankful for the info ...I can only read so many books and it's so lovely if it's a satisfying experience :o)
    I'm enjoying Jill Paton Walsh's Imogen Quy Books at the moment..lovely (and not too heavy...ha ha although I wouldn't mind if they were longer/there were more of them as I'm so enjoying them)

    1. I wouldn't have read this one and certainly not have finished it had it not been the book group choice. The second book is Brick Lane, another award winner. I avoided that when it was first published but have read it for our meeting next week. I am having doubts about being in a book group if I find the choices more duty than pleasure. My time might be better spent following recommendations from friends like you.

    2. This may interest you if you time is not already triple booked

    3. Thanks, Val. I haven't looked at Cornflower blogs for a long time but I've just been over to her book club and found it very interesting and inspiring. How many hours can we stretch into a day?

  2. It can be difficult in a book group if one person takes up too much of the meeting! I hope she let other people have more time to speak at your discussion of The Luminaries.I haven't read it - the description and the length just didn't appeal and reading your review I do find it quite interesting and if it wasn't so long I'd borrow it from the library even if I only flipped through it.

    1. The group convener was very clever and proposed starting with a different person each month. Actually I was first off on this discussion and I realised as other people joined in that they were not expecting lit. crit. or even book review standard so I will have to learn as I go.
      Once I had come to terms with Eleanor Catton's intellectual games, I quite enjoyed looking for her hidden clues and jokes. She can certainly write well and I'd love to see a straightforward novel from her.

  3. Well, this was most interesting to read. I admire your persistence. I couldn't have read the book. 'spoof' is one of my least favorite things. I'm so happy you are blogging again.

    1. Hi Nan. It was your email that prompted me to get back to the blog. I'm afraid I haven't had much time to keep it up, though. I have been spending more time with my grandchildren and that, as you know, is really more important!


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