Youth and heft triumphed at Britain’s Booker Prize on Tuesday, as 28-year-old Ontario-born, New Zealand-based Eleanor Catton won the fiction award for The Luminaries, an ambitious 832-page murder mystery set during a 19th-century gold rush.
The choice should give heart to young authors of oversized tales. Catton is the youngest writer and only the second New Zealander to win the prestigious award — and her epic novel is easily the longest Booker champion.
Catton said after accepting the award that she didn’t think about the length of the book while she was writing it, “partly because I was inside it for the whole time.”
“It wasn’t until I received the proof of the book that I thought, ‘Jeepers, this is actually quite heavy,'” she said. “I’ve had to buy a new handbag, because my old handbag wasn’t big enough to hold my book.”
She thanked her British publisher, Granta, for protecting her from feeling the commercial pressures around a tome that could be seen as “a publisher’s nightmare.”
Travel writer Robert Macfarlane, who chaired the judging panel, called The Luminaries ”dazzling,” ”luminous” and “vast without being sprawling.”
“It is beautifully intricate without being fussy,” Macfarlane said. “It is experimental … but does not by any means neglect the traditional virtues of storytelling.”
Catton had been bookmakers’ joint favourite among the six prize finalists, alongside British novelist Jim Crace, for his rural parable The Harvest. She also beat Ireland’s Colm Toibin, Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo and Canada’s Ruth Ozeki.
Catton received her trophy, which comes with a 50,000 pound ($80,000) check, from Prince Charles’ wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, during a dinner ceremony at London’s medieval Guildhall.
Catton was born in London, Ont., while her father was studying at the University of Western Ontario but left for New Zealand when she was six years old.
The Luminaries centres on a man named Walter Moody who comes to a New Zealand prospecting town in 1866 and finds himself immersed in a web of saloons, seances and skullduggery.
The book’s elaborate narrative is structured according to astrological charts: It consists of 12 sections, each half the length of the last, from a 360-page opener to a final chapter of a single page.
Macfarlane said the novel “takes place in a culture which is utterly capitalized” and focused on money, but also dwells on tenderness and love.
He said the panel of five judges met for two hours — brief by Booker standards — to choose the winner, which was decided without a vote. “No blood was spilled in the judging,” he said.
Catton, who was 25 when she started writing the book and 27 when she finished it, has published just one previous novel. Now she has won a prize that brings a huge boost in profile, publicity and sales, and whose laureates include V.S. Naipaul, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes and Hilary Mantel.
The only previous New Zealand winner is Keri Hulme, who took the Booker in 1985 for The Bone People.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said Catton’s victory was “a hugely significant achievement on the world stage for a New Zealander.”
Macfarlane said Catton’s youth did not influence the judges, and Catton said she felt “honoured and proud to be living in a world where the facts of somebody’s biography doesn’t get in the way of how people read their work.”
This is the last year that the Booker — founded in 1969 and officially named the Man Booker Prize after its sponsor, financial services firm Man Group PLC — will be open only to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth of former British colonies.
Beginning next year, Americans and other English-language writers will be able to enter as well.
The rule change aims to expand the global scope of the Booker even further, although some fear it may alter the delicate chemistry of the prize.
Macfarlane said The Luminaries was a fitting winner — “a global novel that is always intensely local.”
And its sheer size — eight times the length of Toibin’s 104-page The Testament of Mary — had an added benefit for the judges.
“Those of us who didn’t read it on e-readers enjoyed a full upper-body workout,” Macfarlane said.