Eleanor Catton's second novel is as suggestive, diverting and mesmerising as its title would have us hope. Set in Victorian New Zealand, it is a masterpiece of plotting and revelation. Conspiracy, secrecy, purloined letters (there is more than a nod to Poe here) revelation and fortune circle each other in the stories of the cast of twelve characters which intersect and interrupt each other for the unpacking of the central mystery.
For sheer reading pleasure Catton's novel is an out and out success. We are reminded throughout the novel that we are being told a story, and we are as captivated as children by the telling of it. The headers for each chapter which begin by dropping little clues, and end by usurping the content of the chapter are themselves beguiling. The evocation of place is compelling, the language precisely of its period. Her sense for the vernacular is spot on, her characters vivid and endearing.
Even if one were to appraise the novel simply in terms of its architecture, it is a thing of beauty, wondrously structured so that the form fully underpins the content. Catton's decision to use astrology as the frame for her story is a stroke of genius: astrology, the ever-changing patterns of the stars which men use to find purpose and pattern in their lives and motivations. The novel is structured in twelves, so it has a mathematical as well as literary pleasure to it.
Fortune is the currency of the novel, both in terms of chance and in
terms of gold. We are asked to consider what is of value and then shown
what desire costs. There is an alchemical beauty in Catton's novel. Everyone is transformed, some are transfigured. Paulo Coelho says that alchemy exists so that the world becomes a better place, so that we can transform our leaden lives into gold. Catton has done something even more luminous: she has turned the world of words into something fine and precious, rare and valuable. If this isn't a contender for the prize I don't know what is.
The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele