The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John LeCarré
Generations of Winter, Vasily Aksyonov

I'm about a third of the way through The Luminaries, and it has one obvious problem: my final judgment of the book is going to depend entirely on how clever its central mystery is. This situation recurs with some frequency in genre writing. Generations of Winter was engagingly written--I quite enjoyed the section from the dog's perspective--but since it is intended to track onto a specific part of Russian history, and the novel announces its theme of "fortunes waxed and waned during the Soviet Union era" early on, there's no real suspense. Some people will be killed, others will not; to be engaging, at least some things must happen that the reader does not suspect, which means it is not surprising that the most ideologically correct character breaks down, etc. Escaping from one convention means escaping into another. It's hard to sustain momentum when the outcomes are known and the plots are conventional (The Magnificent Ambersons, but with a surgeon's family), but at least the writing is good.

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy: what a terrible book, and significantly more difficult in its construction than it needed to be. Most of the action is relayed in dialogue, long after the events have taken place, with a heavy helping of jargon. The suspense relies on nothing more than not telling you who is responsible for as long as possible: it's the only mystery in the book, not much of one by halfway through the book, and quite obviously being intentionally withheld.

An aside: The Brothers Karamazov is a novel with a strong genre component. Its worth is dependent on the fact that it is also many other things: it hardly matters who killed the father, because it's the reactions of Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei that matter, and these depend in no crucial way on knowing whodunnit. Crime and Punishment seems as good an example as any that there can be no mystery at all to who committed a crime and still have the story be gripping (or, to cite an example from last night's movie watching, RoboCop).

Which brings us back to The Luminaries. The style is assured, though I am never quite certain whether the narrator's voice is supposed to be "sounds like a 21st century person sounding 19th century-ish" or actually 19th century-ish. But there's nothing else other than the central mystery to engage the reader--just shy of 300 pages, we're still in flashback to events before the novel began, and I suspect we'll be there for awhile still--and much of the tension or narrative momentum comes from the writer's decisions about how to introduce information, not from the information itself. This does not leave me confident in the overall direction of the novel, though I'd be happy to be wrong.

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