This book is Literature with a capital L. It’s so prestigious it won the Man Booker Prize, one of the most significant awards for novels in the world – only the second book by a New Zealand author ever to do so. And it’s a complicated beast.
The story is set in the gold rush town of Hokatika on New Zealand’s west coast in the 1860s. Walter Moody has just got off the ship convinced he’s seen a ghost. And he stumbles into a meeting of 12 different men from around town, who have gathered to compare notes on various strange goings on.
The books copies the concept and style of a popular Victorian novel format, to the point where the style can seem positively archaic. For example, there’s a common axiom is screenwriting “show, don’t tell” when it comes to action. This is a novel that does a lot of telling. By the sixth or seventh I had met a new character with a three or four page description of what he looked like, followed several pages later by a detailed three or four page description of his personality, I was about ready to scream.
I’ll be honest…the first half of the novel is pretty slow going, as the book sets out the components of its exceedingly complicated plot. But if you can fight through that, all the disparate pieces start coming together, and suddenly at the end of the book you realise the story you finished reading is completely different from the what you thought it was when you started.
Now obviously a book about gold prospectors, prostitutes, scoundrels, corrupt officials, Chinese opium dealers and addicts, Maori warriors, and more might not to be everyone’s taste. But the book does some very clever things. Each “part” of the book is half the length of the part before it, so the plot speeds up immeasurably as it hones in on its conclusion. And it has an interesting astrological structure that really only made sense when someone explained it to me. Not an easy book, but a rewarding one.