I lived in New Zealand for a couple of years, so I am pretty positively-disposed towards the book, which reminds me very well of the shape of the country. Catton has constructed a great portrait (albeit historical) of the goldfields. Think Deadwood, bro: there’s Celestials and whores, scarred bastards and scheming brothel-keepers, proud proprietors and prospectors lacking a clue. There’s often a sense of style over substance – motivations for some characters’ actions are often considered to be an adequate portrait, leaving some appearing a little one-dimensional – but the ambition is huge, and the story well-told.
As a Victorian pastiche, the novel is good but not great: there’s too much slippery modern phrasing slipped in, though I admit this could well be intentional. I mean, Oscar and Lucinda features some clangers, historically speaking, and it’s still a great novel. This isn’t up there with Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx in terms of labyrinthine structure and adherence to of-the-time argot – but the goal with Catton’s novel always seems more in line with proportions, mathematics and astrology than it does with rigid Victoriana. Astrology references and the concept of orbits of influence rule, and I suppose it’s this (rather than the form) that lends a classical feel to the work.
Again, I really enjoyed this book. It took a while to get going, and required constant examination of its dramatis personae, and I liked that by the end of the novel, the clip was so great that the explanatory paragraphs heading each chapter were often longer than the chapter itself. There’s a sense of speeding towards a conclusion, even as certain events are replayed from differing angles. The repetition is welcome, though it does make the reader consider how many of the pages could be cut while still keeping the meat.
This is an excellent, quasi-historical story with all the twists and tales of the archetypal shaggy dog. If you’re interested in 1850-70 colonial New Zealand, featuring a villain who all but twirls his handlebar moustache, you’ll be well served.