What we thought: One day in the mid-1860s, potential gold-digger Walter Moody steps off a ship in the town of Hokitika on the south island of New Zealand. He’s just had a nasty shock. There was something quite terrifying in the hold of the Godspeed. Out of sorts, he stumbles in to the hotel lounge, unaware of the fact he’s interrupting a private meeting between twelve leading lights of the town.
Gradually, the tale begins to unfold, guided by the firm hand of our narrator(s). Each man seems implicated in death, suicide, murder and conspiracy, but nothing is quite as it appears. All these men are seeking a fortune and then intend to be ‘homeward bound’. But fortune has two meanings.
The story unfolds from each person’s perspective, dropping nuggets of information for the reader to assemble into a detective’s theory. Our loyalties shift, our opinions alter and we tread with great caution, unsure who can be trusted.
Catton’s narrative is a perfectly constructed drama in a most unusual setting, conjuring Victorian New Zealand and its inhabitants with atmospheric realism. The hardships, the gossip, the politicking and the landscape don’t so much leap off the page as lure you in, so you feel as tangled and sapped of the will to escape as a fly in a web.
A hefty tome, but wholly absorbing with a wonderful Zodiac theme underpinning the complexity of this intrigue where men believe they are in control of their destiny.
You’ll like this if you enjoyed: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, The Little Stranger, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
Avoid if you dislike: Victorian storytelling, overt exposition of construction, large casts of characters.
Ideal accompaniments: A platter of cold meats, a dram of Laphroaig and a cold, clear night so you can see the stars.
Genre: Literary fiction
Available on Amazon