First Published: August 2013 by Victoria University Press Books
This Edition Published: October 2013 by Little, Brown
Genre: Literary Fiction
My Rating: 5/5 Stars
I bought this book a couple years ago for $8 at a used bookstore. I mostly got it because what a deal! Giant hardback in excellent condition with gorgeous cover for 8 bucks? You don’t have to tell me twice. It also sounded fairly interesting and it had the little badge announcing it as a Man Booker Prize winner, so I was sold. I took it home, stuck it on my shelf, and there it stayed for at least a couple of years.
I’m not sure why I didn’t pick it up sooner. Maybe just because it’s massive. Maybe because I bought it more for the deal than for the book itself. In any case, now that I’ve read it I’m kicking myself for not doing so earlier.
I loved this book.
The plot, as described by the publisher, is this:
“It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune on the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky.”
This book has an extensive cast of characters. Walter Moody, of course, the twelve men of varying backgrounds and nationalities who are meeting to discuss mysterious events, the subjects of the mystery they’ve all come to discuss, and more. The third person narration follows around all of them at different points at the novel, filling in the gaps of the mystery with everyone’s point of view. I was caught up in the mystery from page one. There are so many different perspectives and so many different ideas of what has happened, and nothing is explained outright. Catton does provide recaps, in the guise of the characters trying to piece everything together, that helps with keeping it all straight. But even then, you can’t know for sure if the characters have a grasp on the events and what really happened.
The timeline to this novel was unique. Each section of the book takes place on a single day, with much of the action coming in the form of flashbacks recalled by the characters. We begin with Moody’s arrival in New Zealand, but quickly jump back in time to learn why the twelve men have gathered and what they were doing to pull them into the mystery. Each section of the novel is shorter than the last, imitating the phases of the moon.
The plot itself was enough to propel me through this 830 page monster of a book, but if that isn’t enough for you, there’s also the layer of structural elements (in addition to the length of chapters as they relate to the phases of the moon) that are unique and smart and compelling. The characters are each assigned a symbol from the zodiac, or a celestial body, which in many ways defines them and the way they interact with the other characters. Some readers have felt that this was restricting and made the novel too formulaic, but I have to disagree. I was still left questioning the truth and what had happened/was going to happen at each turn, and I was still fascinated by these characters. I’ll have to be honest and tell you that I’ve never spent any time with anything astrological, never paid any attention to my horoscope, so many of these elements went a little over my head. I found myself searching for information on what it meant for Mercury to be in retrograde, and trying to figure out just what that meant for the characters and for the story as a whole. This didn’t hinder or detract from my reading experience in the slightest. Instead, I think it allowed me to take the plot as just a story when I wanted to, but delve deeper into the structure and meaning when I wished. I am more impressed than anything at Catton’s ability to weave all these intricate details of the heavens and the zodiac into such a compelling story.
When I finished this book I closed it and sat there, staring at the wall, for at least ten minutes before I set the book aside. I was trying to work out the ending, fit all the pieces together, figure out if I’d missed anything. It’s safe to say that I had a pretty major book hangover. Even after over 800 pages in this world, I wasn’t ready to move on. 1860s New Zealand had become a familiar place and I didn’t want to let go of the people I had met there.
This book won’t be for everyone. It’s long and complicated and at times may drag along for some people. But the writing is gorgeous, each sentence/paragraph/page a work of art. That’s pretty impressive of any writer, but Eleanor Catton happened to be only 28 when she wrote it, making her the youngest person ever to receive the Man Booker Prize. I highly recommend this one, and I am already looking forward to revisiting it and picking up on things I may have missed the first time around.
Have you read this book? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you thought!