by Eleanor Catton
“There is a great deal of difference between keeping one’s own secret and keeping a secret for another soul; so much so that I wish we had two worlds, that is a word for a secret of one’s own making and a word for a secret that on did not make, and perhaps did not wish for, but has chosen to keep, all the same.” (p 788)
This is a complicated novel that rewards the reader who can stay the course. You know that a novel is going to have some complications when it begins with, not only a "Note to the Reader" about the use of "stellar and planetary positions" in the story, but there follows a "Character Chart" on the subsequent page. With twenty listed characters, twelve of whom are the "luminaries" mentioned in the first sentence of the opening chapter and one of whom is dead, you quickly perceive both the value of this chart and its importance for your sanity as a reader.
Needless to say, due to the complications of the plot I will not be able to recount all of the events that occur in the twelve parts into which the story is divided. No risk of any plot spoilers here. However some of the highlights of the story that were impressed on my memory include: Five dresses filled with gold, more gold discovered in a dead hermit’s cottage, a lovely young prostitute who nearly overdosed on opium, questions about the ownership of a boat named the Godspeed, and the motivations of the dozen “luminaries” who have gathered together in the smoking room of a second-rate New Zealand hotel when the novel opens to discuss a few of these curiosities.
Catton's prose style is engaging, which helps when the first part is a mere 360 pages (and even this number is significant). The narration starts with one of the twelve, Thomas Balfour, but an omniscient narrator takes over to "impose a regimental order upon the impatient chronicle of the shipping agent’s roving mind". Thank goodness. Otherwise the novel might have run on for another 800 pages. The first part ends with a neat little summary of some of the high points so far and the remaining eleven parts gradually shorten so much that the final four parts average less than three pages each.
The various story lines do come together (I believe) and there are more notable events including an evil ship’s captain with a C-shaped scar, a brothel madam who conducts a seance, a blackmailed politician and a riveting courtroom scene, and a phantom aboard the Godspeed, “the dead man rising, his bloody throat, his cry,” that greets Walter Moody (whom we also met back on the first page) on his way to New Zealand. It is the New Zealand of 1865 and 1866 that is the setting for this novel that proves you do not have to cover a great many years to produce a long (830 pp) novel. It reminded me of Vikram Seth's skill in portraying about two years of Indian history over a span of more than 1400 pages in his delightful novel, A Suitable Boy.
Eleanor Catton succeeds in creating an historical mystery(s) with a byzantine plot that manages to entertain on almost every page. She was so successful that she was awarded the 2013 Mann Booker Prize; a prize that usually goes to short, dense, self-consciously literary novels. The entertainment was sufficient for this reader to recommend the book to all who enjoy big novels that are both complicated and satisfying.
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