The Short Version: On a dark and stormy New Zealand evening, Walter Moody stumbles upon a strange conference of twelve men. They begin to spin out their story for him – a story that overlaps and undercuts and that brings Moody straight into the politics of the town: a dead hermit named Crosbie, a missing rich young man named Emery Staines, an opium-addicted whore called Anna Wetherwell, and many others all wrapped up in the midst of the NZ goldrush. Their stars, it would seem, are all together crossed.
The Review: I read somewhere that this novel’s rapidly diminishing chapter length is meant to mimic the moon going from full to new. It’s an interesting trick, but perhaps more interesting in theory than in its execution though: the first ‘chapter’ of this book (over 300 pages) is one of the more daunting literary experiences I’ve had in a very long time. We’re introduced in a kaleidoscopic blur to our twelve ‘stellar’ characters (each one quaintly mapped to a different sign of the zodiac, although only some of them truly seem to exhibit the traits most easily associated with their sign) and it’s enough to make a head spin and a book feel heavy in the hand. I will not lie to you, reader – there were times that I considered putting the book down for good. The early pages are that much of a struggle at times, despite the beautiful writing on display. But beautiful writing cannot help the reader penetrate the brambles of who knew what and when and why and how they knew it – and there’s a distinct knowledge that the only way out is through.
And so I pressed on – and, wouldn’t you know it, but somewhere around Chapter II (also, I’m using chapter as a loose term here; the book is divided into eight segments in the table of context but within those segments there are many unnumbered shorter scenes which could perhaps more accurately be considered chapters of books within the novel. But it doesn’t really matter – you break it down how it makes sense for you) I found myself getting pulled further into the story and by the time we made it to a particular courtroom scene (I shan’t explain it any further for fear of spoilers), I could barely put the book down. Part of this might be due to the dwindling pages and the dwindling chapter size – when you think you can consume “perhaps just one more… or maybe one more after that”, you end up racing yourself to the end in some ways. I read the last 200 pages of this book in the space of less than 24 hours. Compare that to it having taken over a week to read the first 600 and take it as you will.
But what is this book? By that I mean to ask, what really are we meant to take away? It is an exceptional historical novel, capturing not only the atmosphere of mid-1860s-New-Zealand (not that I was there) but the tone of late Victorian novels quite masterfully… but even as I think on the swirling cast of characters, especially in light of the last few chapters (which take us ever so briefly, comparatively, over the actual events that led up to the night of 14 Jan 1866), I wonder what we were meant to take away. In the end, much of the story winds up being a tempest in a teacup. Oh, yes, there are plenty of high stakes – backstabbing both literal and metaphorical, the rise and/or fall of any given individual, the worth of a human being overall – but I cannot help thinking that none of it actually amounted to much. The most compelling scenes were, for me, the most linearly presented ones – again, in the courtroom – and while flashbacks and storytelling devices were still employed liberally, there was an understanding that some level of truth needed to be told in that moment and that we would come away with some greater knowledge than we had before. Of course, as the author herself questions in these pages, there’s a question of “the whole truth” vs. “nothing but the truth” – they are two fundamentally different things, somewhat exclusive to one another.
Speaking of the author herself, let me say again how wondrous the flights of prose can be in this novel. Catton, on her second novel, has proved without a shadow of a doubt that she’s in rarified company in terms of what, with her pen, she can create. The words here are Shakespeare’s “very fantastical banquet”, full not so much of imagery as emotion. There are few scenes in this novel where the words truly conjured up the setting – much of that came from my imagination – but the experiences of these characters (no matter how mundane in the moment or in retrospect those experiences may have been) are felt innately by a reader. Perhaps this was the intention with the jumble of Chapter I – Moody’s confusion and struggle to parse the myriad tales mirrors our own. If that is the case, why, Ms. Catton is even better than I thought.
Rating: 4 out of 5. This is a complex book – made all the more complex by the sensation that, despite its scope/ambition, it may well fade from me in all but the most general haunting terms. Should we not demand something that requires this much input exist with us for a comparative amount of time? Or is it simply worthwhile to power through the first 300 pages and then find oneself tipped over some invisible peak, slipping and sliding down the slope of the novel until we’re taken over by the unstoppable rush to the end? There is not much to these people’s insular lives in this small gold-rush province in New Zealand – but at the same time, to these people, this story is everything. That dichotomy, that paradox, pushes and pulls at the reader like the effect of the moon on tides – making the title altogether apt.