A layered, mannered, beguiling yarn, longlisted for the Booker Prize, by New Zealander novelist Catton.
When Walter Moody arrives on a “wild shard of the Coast”—that of the then-remote South Island—in late January 1866, he discovers that strange doings are afoot: A local worthy has disappeared, a local belle de nuit has tried to do herself in, the town drunk turns out to possess a fortune against all odds, and the whole town is mumbling, murmuring and whispering like Sweethaven in Robert Altman’s Popeye. Indeed, when Moody walks into his hotel on that—yes, dark and stormy—night, he interrupts a gathering of 12 local men who are trying to get to the bottom of the matter. Moody, as it turns out, is trained as a lawyer—“By training only,” he demurs, “I have not yet been called to the Bar”—but, like everyone else, has been lured to the wild by the promise of gold. It is gold in all its glory that fuels this tale, though other goods figure, too, some smuggled in by the very phantom bark that has deposited Moody on the island. Catton’s long opening, in which the narrative point of view ping-pongs among these 13 players and more, sets the stage for a chronologically challenging tale in which mystery piles atop mystery. Catton writes assuredly and with just the right level of flourish: “He was thinking of Sook Yongsheng, lying cold on the floor inside—his chin and throat smeared with boot-black, his eyebrows thickened, like a clown.” She blends elements of Victorian adventure tale, ghost story, detective procedural à la The Moonstone and shaggy dog tale to produce a postmodern tale to do Thomas Pynchon or Julio Cortázar proud; there are even echoes of Calvino in the author’s interesting use of both astronomy and astrology. The possibilities for meta cleverness and archness are endless, and the whole business is too smart by half, but Catton seems mostly amused by her concoction, and that’s just right. About the only fault of the book is its unending length: There’s not an ounce of flab in it, but it’s still too much for ordinary mortals to take in.
There’s a lovely payoff after the miles of twists and turns. It’s work getting there but work of a thoroughly pleasant kind.