In which Popcultureboy is left floored by and in awe of Catton’s supreme mastery and skill as a writer and storyteller, but is ultimately forced to conclude he found the novel easier to admire than to love.
So here we are at the pinnacle of the Booker challenge for 2013, with the winning book. There were some firsts with this book lifting the Booker, as it was the longest ever book to do so with the highest page count (Catton is 28, and the book runs to 834 pages, as was heavily documented at the time). I have a bit of soft spot for Victorian pastiche novels, so I was really looking forward to reading this from the moment the longlist was announced. I confess, one of the reasons I took so long to get around to it is the unseemly duration of it.
Catton has divided the novel into twelve sections, each one half the length of its predecessor, to mirror the twelve phases of the waning moon. The character count is even higher. The opening section sees Walter Moody stumble upon a gathering of twelve disparate men, who have gathered to discuss a strange pattern of events that has unfolded in the previous two weeks. A fortune in smelted gold has been uncovered in the cottage of a dead hermit, a prostitute has tried to commit suicide and a prospector has vanished, seemingly without a trace. The gathered dozen seem to think the events are somehow connected and they each tell their story to Moody, to see if he can piece it all together. But of course, Moody also holds a piece of the puzzle, unbeknownst to all of them.
There is absolutely no denying that Catton really knows what she’s doing. The research for this novel has clearly been seriously in depth. The language is rich and evocative, spot on for the genre she’s trying to evoke. And of course, she’s not afraid to take her time in telling the story. If you enjoy a mystery story, then this is a glorious one, intricately layered, utterly engrossing and one that doesn’t talk down to the reader. There’s also a certain charm to the old fashioned prose, with its blanked out expletives and the like.
So there is a lot to recommend this novel, but it’s not a book to undertake lightly. It’s a proper beast of a book, that’s for sure. And for as much as I loved it, I could never quite stop a part of my brain from really doing cartwheels over the style of it. So it’s very much not a case of “style over substance” because believe me, there is a LOT of substance here. It’s an odd criticism to make, that a book is too well written, too immaculately styled, but that’s what I’m trying to get at. It was all so spot on, that every now and then, I’d be pulled out of the story by the sheer brilliance of the text.