on 31 August 2014
I approached this book with some degree of trepidation. Several reviews from hardened literary critics implied that while its technical merits made it worthy of its Booker Prize win, actually reading it was a bit of a hard slog, thanks to its length and its complex structure. It sat on my Kindle for several months, until, confronted with the prospect of a 27 hour plane journey, I decided that it was now or never.
From the first page, I was astonished by how much I enjoyed it, not in an cold, "appreciating great literature" sort of way, but simply in the sense of getting wrapped up in the plot, speculating about the mysteries and feeling strong emotions towards the characters. It was beautifully written, apeing a late Victorian style perfectly, but the story drew me in and kept me turning the pages as if it were the most salacious, trashy thriller. The plot is complex, featuring at least twenty fairly major characters, but while it requires a fair degree of concentration to keep track of everyone's comings and goings, I never felt lost or overburdened with detail, just fully immersed in a well-developed world.
It's a tricky tale to summarise, but basically, on the same night in a nineteenth-century goldmining town in New Zealand, a hermit dies alone, only for both a stash of gold and a long-lost wife to appear; a prostitute collapses from an apparent opium overdose and is arrested, and the richest man in town disappears. There are mysteries underlying all three of these events (and several others) and endless connections between these three characters and the rest of the sprawling cast. With so many characters, it's perhaps inevitable that some of them were more interesting and memorable than others, and that some of the supporting cast blurred into one slightly. But the best characters were very well done with some interesting nuances - and less nuanced, but just as enjoyable, was a wonderfully villainous sea captain.
I didn't know much more about the plot than the book's setting, and on paper, it wasn't a period or location that really appeared to me. However, the author really brings the town of Hotika to life and really piqued my interest in a piece of history I had no prior knowledge of. While the plot is mostly rooted in the gritty realism of life in a frontier town, there is also a slight touch of the paranormal, which I suspect some people will dislike, but which I quite enjoyed.
I'd heard that this book was heavily based around astronomy, another factor that seems to have daunted some critics and put off some readers. If you have no interest in the subject, then don't worry. The plot and the prose are perfectly enjoyable without this knowledge, and although the strange chapter titles and shortening chapters make you aware that something strange is going on, for the most part, it doesn't get in the way of the story, just leaves you with a vague sense that the author has probably pulled off something quite clever. I'm by no means an expert, but I had some interest in astronomy in my teens, and had just enough remembered knowledge to get something extra from the book. I'm sure that anyone who is genuinely knowledgable about the subject would be fascinated by the way it is handled. As far as I could tell, the idea is that some of the characters represent signs of the zodiac (I had fun guessing who was which, until I noticed there was actually a chart - woops) and some other represent the planets. Mostly, the planetary ones are the ones doing things and moving the plot along, while the stellar ones are caught in the fall out of their actions. I think the latter were acting according to the general attributes of their star sign, and also been affected by the position of the actual planets and stars on any given day. I suspect that a greater knowledge of astronomy would help to explain what sometimes feels like odd behaviour and U-turns on the part of certain characters, as well as some of the stranger coincidences and plot twists. To reiterate though, all this underlying cleverness doesn't get in the way of the story and it isn't necessary to even vaguely understand it in order to follow the plot.
The other noteworthy thing about this book is the structure. It's in twelve parts (presumably another reference to the signs of the zodiac). The first part has twelve chapters, the next eleven, and so on, until part twelve only has one chapter. At the same time, the chapters get notably shorter as the book goes on (part 1 finished 48% of the way through the book, according to my Kindle, part twelve is one page long) and though I didn't bother to count, I'm reliably informed that each is half the length of its predecessor. I didn't feel that this structure added much, but like the astronomy references, neither, for the most part, did it get in the way of the reading experience. My only complaint is that the book reaches its climax at the end of Part Five of twelve- (although to be fair, that is 90% of the way through the book). At that point, most of the mysteries are revealed and loose ends tied up. The following sections then go back in time to fill in some of the gaps. To some extent, this was interesting, but a lot of it felt like rehashing old ground or needlessly spelling out things that had been clearly implied beforehand. I was hoping that these flashbacks would put a new spin on events or characters, but with the exception of the interesting sections explaining how Anna (the prostitute mentioned above) came to be in her current situation, they felt extremely redundant and repetitive, which slightly dulled my love for the book. It felt like the one time the author really put structure over storytelling.
This book is undoubtedly long and clearly very cleverly written. But I'd emphasise once more that it's far more enjoyable, far more of a page-turner and a far easier read than either its length or its reputation would suggest. Marvel at its structure and style, puzzle out its astronomical mysteries or simply enjoy a riveting historical drama - whatever level you choose to read it on, I'd highly recommend this book.