This book, for me, starts out better than it ends. The first sections are engrossing, detailed and mysterious. I didn’t know what was happening, but it unfolded small piece by small piece, slowly creating a picture of some unexplained events experienced by 12 men in an isolated setting on the west coast of New Zealand. Like a long 19th century novel by Wilkie Colllins, it builds a mystery from the fragments that each participant sees, while a listener tries to puzzle it out and understand how it relates to the mystery in his own life.
In the sections that follow, the characters find more pieces of information, and intriguingly end up in a big courtroom scene in which they conspire to present a false story to the judge. But in more and more brief snippets of the story, the villain dies mysteriously, the conspirators continue to live frustrated lives and the hero and heroine seem drawn together by unknown forces. The last sections are so brief that it felt as if the author got so tired of writing out the first part that she was no longer interested in finishing the novel. Or perhaps she is telling us that her novel is not an entertainment, but it is a highly wrought literary creation and ought to be appreciated as such.
In part, this reflects one theme of the novel, that everyone has their own piece of the story, and it can never come together in a complete and satisfactory way. But here, it seems as if Catton’s objective is to deliberately alienate her readers and tell them that the interesting story she began with isn’t worth her time, or theirs, and they should just deal with it. Or instead, appreciate the artful way she has structured the story, like the phases of the moon or the spiral of a fern. There is a great deal of artistry that I admire in the novel, but the structure feels more like clever trickery than artfulness.
What I do admire particularly, in addition to the intricate plotting, is the detailed picture Catton creates of a small 19th century frontier town. Reading her description of Hokitika gives me a parallel to the goldrush towns of British Columbia, which I’ve grown up with but not seen portrayed so well. Catton has researched the language and lifestyles so thoroughly that I can visualize the settings and how the characters fit into them. Even the details of claims registration, banking and shipping insurance fit plausibly into the narrative in a way that seems accurate and precise. Many writers describing details of contemporary society are not as successful. The characters are also plausible and varied. I assume they fit the astrological structure that Catton imposes on the book, although whether they do or not seems to have no bearing on the story and I was not interested enough in that aspect to try to work it out.
Perhaps because of the frontier setting, the range of characters is limited. The women characters are largely overshadowed by the men, with only two women showing any kind of agency even though the story revolves around them. Two Chinese laborers play small roles but both have the depth of a backstory. The Maori character has the least development of the central characters. He comes and goes at his will and is portrayed with sympathy, but we know nothing of his background and little of his motivation. If Catton is trying to avoid appropriation of an indigenous character, she ends up coming close to stereotyping him as the silent unknowable native. Perhaps this is how her 19th century characters saw him, but her readers see all the other characters through 21st century eyes, and it seems inconsistent to let him remain a shadow.
In spite of my criticism, I enjoyed reading the book. It filled up my Christmas hours pleasureably even if I didn’t fully appreciate the literary construction that it seems to be.