My Star Rating: *****
First Published in 2013 & winner of The Man Booker Prize
Eleanor Catton has achieved a masterpiece at just 28 years of age: this will be a ‘classic’ of the future, destined to appear on English Literature reading lists in Universities everywhere.
Born in Canada, now living in New Zealand she is an individual that has very quickly mastered her trade. She has a degree from the University of Canterbury, in the UK, a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at The Institute of Modern Letters, at Victoria, University of Wellington and a fellowship from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Eleanor has developed the skill of writing for a readers’ pleasure.
Described as a “golden girl of fiction” reading this novel you can very quickly see why. It is a novel that will make you think, it has a complexity about it that keeps you intrigued, you want to read more to find out about each of the characters. No one character has a main part to play: all are intricately linked into one story.
Split into 12 books, wrapped within one cover, this read could appear daunting to begin with. The chapters of book one are, without a doubt, some of the longest I have every come across, and at times can make you question whether you will even get to the end. Add to this the fact that it is set in New Zealand in 1866, the language and the place names can seem strange to the modern reader. However, you soon become hooked. The chapters fly by and you really begin to enjoy the complex threading of the story.
Starting this novel, I believed that the character of Walter Moody would become the narrator and unravel the mystery that has set upon the town of Hokitika, instead he becomes part of the mystery.
The narrative starts with the end in mind:
“The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met… Such was the perception of Mr. Walter Moody, from where he stood in the doorway with his hand upon the frame.”
Walter Moody, it appears, has stumbled across a meeting of conspirators, but are they really conspiring against someone of is it that they are trying to piece something together?
To begin with each of the 12 men are loathed to entertain Moody and therefore a silence quickly descends upon the room, it is only after a conversation with Thomas Balfour, the local shipping agent, that people begin to open up, mapping out their findings of recent events that they feel are linked together in some way. The telling of this tale in not at all logically, flitting between narrators and timeline, you need to almost make a chronological table of events for yourself. Walter Moody clearly feels the same, summarising the chain of events for himself in one of the final chapters of Book One.
So what happened?
A Wealth man (Emery Staines) goes missing, a hermit (Crosbie Wells) dies of what appears to be a drink overdose and a prostitute (Anna Wetherell) is found unconscious in the middle of the road, believed to have attempted suicide. As each man tells his story you start to wonder how on earth these three events could be associated with one another other than the fact that they all occurred on the same evening. Add to this that Walter Moody also has a secret he is loathed to tell but implies that it could be linked in some way you would be forgiven for thinking that you are going mad.
Crosbie Wells, for a start, appears to have very few, if any, friends. Living in the Arahura Valley away from civilisation what possible connection could he have to the others? It does however, appear that he is more closely associated with the two younger characters than anyone present that night in the Crown Hotel would believe.
Crosbie Wells is discovered by a gentleman called Lauderback, a wealthy high flying Politician with his heart set on a chair in the Houses of Parliament. He is heading into Westland to rally the troops to vote for him and decides to travel across country rather than take a boat. It would appear that he stumbles across the remote house hoping that the individual inside will take pity on him and provide him with food and water for the evening. At this point you do not realise that this was an intentional stop off as he wishes to find out about the person inside.
After this discovery he continues on into town and is the person that finds Anna Wetherell in a state on the roadside, believing at first that she is also dead. What an unlucky individual? At the same moment it would appear that Emery Staines has disappeared and the speculation soon starts that he has obviously perished.
As the story unfolds more associations between the characters are unveiled.
Lauderback has worked with Thomas Balfour for years; Balfour helping to control Lauderback’s fleet of ships. Lauderback has recently been blackmailed by a woman named Lydia Wells and a person he believed was called Crosbie Francis Wells (alternatively known also as Francis Carver).
Crosbie Wells married Lydia Wells after a night of gambling; neither party particularly willing but that was his winning prize. She went on to swindle him out of his fortune with the help of Francis Carver, whom also conned Lauderback into releasing one of his ships, the Godspeed, over to him.
Lydia Wells appears in Hokitika as soon as she hears of her husband’s death to claim what is rightful hers only to find out that the land has already been sold to the local manager of one of the hotels, Edgar Clinch. She then has a fight on her hands to provide that the claim is rightfully hers and therefore is adamant that she will stay until the matter has been resolved.
Edgar Clinch, currently manager of the Gridiron hotel, cares for the prostitutes that are owned by Dick Mannering, a goldfields magnate, and is especially sweet on Anna Wetherell.
Anna Wetherell, falls in love, with the most unlucky of characters and exposes Francis Carver and Lydia Wells for the con artists they are. Not before, however, she is placed in gaol for her suspected suicide attempt and has to bribe the local justice clerk, Aubert Gascoigne, to release her. Her Bribe: a portion of the gold she currently has hidden in the bodice of her dress. This young lady, it later transpires is associated with the missing man, Emery Staines.
Emery Staines, travelled to New Zealand on the same ship as Anna Wetherell and also became a victim of the Carver/Wells scams. When he later meets Crosbie Wells he believes he has helped to cause this man discomfort at the hand of Carver and therefore supports his purchase of the land in the Arahura Valley. Crosbie Wells wants to disappear and become anonymous, frightened that Carver is still trying to track him down and therefore Staines tells nobody of his whereabouts of his background.
Crosbie Wells and Anna met whilst she stayed with Lydia. Believing she had landed on her feet as soon as she stepped off the ship she soon becomes aware of her naïve nature. Crosbie protected her where possible and they ultimately became closer than they should have done.
Throw into the mix of this narrative a story about the wrong doing of a Chinese family at the hands of Carver, the beating of a Chinese man, Ah Sook, by a violent brute who then later dies at the hands of his wife, a brother, Governor Shepherd, who is trying to gain revenge for his brother’s death and the deceit of a so-called friend: you have a novel full of treachery, malicious intent and victimisation.
This novel has been written to convey an Era where life should have been simple. Written in the tongue that would have been used during this time it actual illustrates the lifestyle of complex, interwoven lives; where everyone knows each other and history will always end up repeating itself.
A fantastic read. Do not be put off by the sheer weight of the novel, the length of the chapters or the style of the language. This is a book that should appear on everyone’s bookshelf! I only picked it up because it had won The Man Booker Prize but I am so glad that I did.
I would recommend this book to anyone, regardless of genre preference, simply because it is that good and should be read by everyone at some point.
If Eleanor Catton’s first book, “Rehearsal”, is as good as this and her future creations stand up to the same scrutiny then this is definitely an author that will grace bookshops for years to come.