This is a long story, over 700 pages, which takes place in New Zealand during the time of the gold rush. As one might imagine there’s plenty of wheeling and dealing and added to it are some tales of the opium trade, its origins in China and a few of the men, both English and Chinese, who were caught up in it there. In this story they brought the trade with them to New Zealand.
What a tangled web the lust for gold is in Catton’s story. Walter Moody, a well-educated young man from England, is newly arrived on the coast and has had a very rough crossing, one so rough he feels lucky to be alive. Still stunned by the ordeal and by a man, phantom or real, he still can’t make out, he makes his way to the smoking room at the Crown Hotel. Unbeknownst to him, a dozen local men have gathered for a meeting about the death of Crosbie Wells, a local hermit. At the same time the wealthy prospector Emory Stains has disappeared and is feared dead. On the same day Anna Wetherell, the most popular whore in town is beaten so severely she collapses and ends up in jail, which it turns out is a far better place to be than the local hospital. A fortune in gold is found Crosbie Wells’ cabin after his death, and a smaller amount of gold is found sewn into the seams of Anna’s dress. Moody learns bits and pieces of the story and gets drawn into it further by relating that he was brought to shore by a ship captained by Francis Carver, who was Emory Staines’ business partner. The characters are inviting and the story kept me looking forward to my next chapter.
Ms. Catton includes in the book illustrations and mentions of astrological signs and meanings that I admit were completely lost on me. I know that for someone who keeps up with astrology more than I do, the novel would take on a whole new depth of meaning, but I managed to enjoy the book immensely without it.