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.