15 October 2013
So, Eleanor Catton with The Luminaries it is. The youngest Man Booker winner in the prize's history (she is 28 but completed The Luminaries aged 27) has triumphed with the longest ever Man Booker winning novel (832 pages). Catton is just the second New Zealander to win the prize, the first being Keri Hulme with The Bone People in 1985. A more important statistic is that earlier in the year there were an extraordinary 151 novelists submitted for the prize and from this rich field of literary wheat hers is the one head that remains standing, waving in the warm breeze of the judges' favour. Life for Eleanor Catton will never be the same again.
In a year that has delivered thematic variety in both the longlist and the shortlist, that has encompassed first time novelists and old hands, that has highlighted writers from around the globe (Zimbabwe, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, Anglo-America, England), the judges picked Catton's audacious take on an old form, the Victorian “sensation novel”. She has channelled Wilkie Collins and Herman Melville and come up with something quite new.
The Luminaries, set in 1866 during the New Zealand gold rush, contains a group of 12 men gathered for a meeting in a hotel and a traveller who stumbles into their midst; the story involves a missing rich man, a dead hermit, a huge sum in gold, and a beaten-up whore. There are sex and seances, opium and lawsuits in the mystery too. The multiple voices take turns to tell their own stories and gradually what happened in the small town of Hokitika on New Zealand's South Island is revealed.
The chair of judges Robert Macfarlane described the book as a “dazzling work, luminous, vast”. It is, he said, “a book you sometimes feel lost in, fearing it to be 'a big baggy monster', but it turns out to be as tightly structured as an orrery”. Each of its 12 chapters halves in length which gives the narrative a sense of acceleration. It is not, however, an extended exercise in literary form. Macfarlane and his fellow judges were impressed by Catton's technique but it was her “extraordinarily gripping” narrative that enthralled them. “We read it three times and each time we dug into it the yields were extraordinary, its dividends astronomical.” The Luminaries is, said Macfarlane, a novel with heart. “The characters are in New Zealand to make and to gain – the one thing that disrupts them is love.”
Will readers be put off by the book's bulk? “No”, was Macfarlane's emphatic response. “Length never poses a problem if it's a great novel. The Luminaries is a novel you pan, as if for gold, and the returns are huge.” Although he did also point out that “those of us who didn't read it on e-readers got a full-body workout from the experience”.
What impressed the judges almost as much as the book itself was that it could have been the work of someone so young. Catton was just 25 when she started work on it yet, said Macfarlane, “Maturity is evident in every sentence, in the rhythms and balances. It is a novel of astonishing control.” It will be fascinating to see what she writes next but whatever it is may have to be put on hold: Catton is now sitting at world literature's top table and everyone will want a piece of her. Writing time will be at a premium and in this globalised world there is no hiding place, no Hokitika for her. The judges meanwhile can take a well-earned rest.
In the end Macfarlane neatly summed up the book and Catton's achievement: “awesome”, he said, “or should that be oresome?”