This book takes place in New Zealand during the gold rush of the mid nineteenth century, a time and place I know almost nothing about. It begins when a young man stumbles to shore, frightened by a horrifying spectre he has seen on the ship. He picks the first hotel he finds and settles in, unknowing that he has inadvertently found a secret conclave of men who are meeting to discuss a mystery in which he himself has become entangled. How could anyone not be entranced by such an entrance?
This novel feels like it was written in the time in which it’s set. Catton really hits the tone of writers of that era. This makes you feel like you’re more involved with the story, makes the story feel more authentic, and is interesting. It’s also confusing, a bit tedious, and I got tired of the character Anna being called “the whore” in every other sentence. Catton nails the sexism, racism, and classism, but it got a little depressing to live in a place where society was set up even more obviously to promote the powerful at the expense of the marginalized. For example, a Chinese character is considered a more likely murder suspect by virtue of the fact that everyone knows Chinese people aren’t trustworthy. And when Anna is found passed out on the side of the road, she’s arrested and charged with attempted suicide. Evil people pick up newcomers straight off the boat, offer then hospitality, and then renege and say it wasn’t a gift so that they can own the poor sap as a debt-slave.
The theme of money and its evil influence resounds through the book. People are destroyed by gold or the lust for gold or (most frequently) by not having gold. They are all scoundrels to one extent or another. The other theme that resounds is astrology. The different sections of the book have astrological charts with the characters names in them. They’re lovely, done with nice handwriting and they look interesting, but even though I have a passing familiarity with astrology, I found them baffling and completely unnecessary. They might as well have been cartoon panthers for all they added to the story, yet I suspect that Catton wanted us to pull more significance from them. One of the characters does astrological charts for people, and event his wasn’t enough for me to connect astrology with any of the story elements. It was like when an author names characters after their pets; clearly of great significance to the author, but lost on me.
The carrot that kept me going through the 800 some pages of this book was the prospect of resolving the insanely complicated plot. There are half-brothers who have never met, identity theft, two stolen fortunes in gold, star-crossed lovers, a missing man, a mysterious murder, a couple of revenge pacts and one or two supernatural events. I wanted to find out what happened, and I also dearly wanted to see the evildoers punished and the young lovers united.
I would say that the plot resolution was about 85% satisfactory. The ending chapters were shorter and shorter and shorter, covering more story until the epigraph basically gave a huge plot synopsis. Some of the threads were resolved beautifully. Others were haphazard. A couple of the main murders were not solved, in my opinion. I don’t like “Lady or the Tiger” endings. I want to know without a doubt what happened. Okay, so he died because he drank the phial, but when did it happen? How did they get him to drink it? What was that scene like? Okay, so he died because the other guy managed to get the carriage door open. How did he do it? Why? What was his motivation and thought process? I was greedily devouring the last 100 pages, but when I turned the last page, I let out an involuntary grunt of disappointment. The prospect of having my questions answered kept me going, but I didn’t feel they were all answered to my satisfaction.
There were a couple of other semi-supernatural things which I felt did not help the story. An illiterate person understands a legal document and is able to sign someone else’s name in a way that is convincing enough to fool an expert. Why was that added? I like fantasy, and I like paranormal stories, but when the supernatural elements are kind of casual and unexplained, it’s distracting. Some of the plot elements which were in there seemed contrived and complicated. Actually, a lot of them were, but most of them were contrived and complicated in a good way. It’s just that at the 2/3rds mark, I wanted things to start winding down instead of getting more and more convoluted.
The characters are well-written, but unlikeable. The plot is fascinating, but not resolved as completely as I would have liked. The setting is unusual and fascinating, but also grim and depressing. I enjoyed most of this book, and I greatly admire the skill that went into creating it, but the let-down at the end when some mysteries remained unexplained disappointed me. I know that some of you are going to write comments that say “well, it was obvious, you see? Because of that throwaway line on page blah blah that clearly says blah blah” but I don’t want to read books twice to get the meaning I should get the first time. It’s not a light or easy read, and I wanted to be rewarded for my diligence by plot resolution. If Catton had wrapped up all the plots, and if Anna (who I believe is the main character) had a bit more of a personality, this would have been a masterpiece.