I bought this book by Eleanor Catton on my trip to Pittsburgh and Toronto in 2013 (thanks to Amazon associates’ gains!), mostly by chance (and also because it was the most recent Man Booker Prize). After a few sleepless nights last week (when I should not have been suffering from New York jet lag!, given my sleeping pattern when abroad), I went through this rather intellectual and somewhat contrived mystery. To keep with tradition (!), the cover was puzzling me until I realised those were phases of the moon, in line with [spoiler!] the zodiacal underlying pattern of the novel, pattern I did not even try to follow for it sounded so artificial. And presumably restricted the flow of the story by imposing further constraints on the characters’ interactions.
The novel has redeeming features, even though I am rather bemused at it getting a Man Booker Prize. (When compared with, say, The Remains of the Day…) For one thing, while a gold rush story of the 1860’s, it takes place on the South Island of New Zealand instead of Klondike, around the Hokitika gold-field, on the West Coast, with mentions of places that brings memory of our summer (well, winter!) visit to Christchurch in 2006… The mix of cultures between English settlers, Maoris, and Chinese migrants, is well-documented and information, if rather heavy at times, bordering on the info-dump, and a central character like the Maori Te Rau Tauwhare sounds caricaturesque. The fact that the story takes place in Victorian times call Dickens to mind, but I find very little connection in either style or structure, nor with Victorian contemporaries like Wilkie Collins, and Victorian pastiches like Charles Palliser‘s Quincunx…. Nothing of the sanctimonious and moral elevation and subtle irony one could expect from a Victorian novel!
While a murder mystery, the plot is fairly upside down (or down under?!): the (spoiler!) assumed victim is missing for most of the novel, the (spoiler!) extracted gold is not apparently stolen but rather lacks owner(s), and the most moral character of the story ends up being the local prostitute. The central notion of the twelve men in a council each bringing a new light on the disappearance of Emery Staines is a neat if not that innovative literary trick but twelve is a large number which means following many threads, some being dead-ends, to gather an appearance of a view on the whole story. As in Rashomon, one finishes the story with a deep misgiving as to who did what, after so many incomplete and biased accountings. Unlike Rashomon, it alas takes forever to reach this point!