Kiran Desai won the Man Booker Prize in 2006 at the age of 35 for her second novel The Inheritance of Loss it created a stir as she was the youngest woman to win Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, awarded annually to a novelist from Britain, Ireland or a Commonwealth country.
This year’s winner, the 28 year old Eleanor Catton is not only the youngest novelist to win the world’s most coveted literary award in the award’s 45 year’s history, but has set a new record for the longest work ever to win. The 832 pages The Luminaries, the second novel of Catton that she completed at the age of 27, is a “magnificent novel: awesome in its structural complexity; addictive in its story-telling; and magical in its conjuring of a world of greed and gold," says Chair of judges Robert Macfarlane.
Eleanor Catton is the second New Zealander to win the prize, the first being Keri Hulme who won it for his novel The Bone People in 1985. What impressed the judges was that it could have been the work of someone so young. Catton was just 25 when she started work on it. “Maturity is evident in every sentence, in the rhythms and balances. It is a novel of astonishing control”, reiterates Macfarlane. A more important statistic is that earlier in the year there were an extraordinary number of 151 novelists who submitted for the prize. A long list of thirteen titles was announced on 23 July, and these were narrowed down to a shortlist of six titles, announced on 10 September.
The jury, chaired by the travel writer Robert Macfarlane, who was joined by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Natalie Haynes, Martha Kearney, and Stuart Kelly, after months of commotion and speculation, and around two hours of discussion made a final decision in favour of The Luminaries.
The shortlisted writers contained great geographical and ethnic diversity, with Zimbabwean-born No Violet Bulawayo’s account of the lives of Zimbabwean urchins We Need New Names through Chatto & Windus; Jim Crace from England for Harvest (Picador) portrays the unsettling narrative detailing the disintegration of an agrarian community; the Pulitzer Prize winner Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri for The Lowland, a tale about two brothers in 1960s Bengal, which was lauded by the judges as a “seismological story that was told with impeccable lucidity”, through Bloomsbury Publishing; Canadian-American Ruth Ozeki for A Tale for the Time Being that focuses on the lives of two distinctly different women linked by the serendipitous discovery of a diary through Canongate; and three-time shortlisted Booker veteran Colm Tóibín of Ireland for The Testament of Mary published by Viking Press. The judges picked Catton’s audacious take on an old form, the Victorian “sensation novel”.
Catton was presented the Prize on 15 October 2013 by Prince Charle’s wife Camilla Parker-Bowels, the Duchess of Cornwall, at a glittering dinner in London’s ancient Guildhall the sum of £50000. In her acceptance speech Catton admitted: “When I began writing The Luminaries, I was very much in the thrall of Lewis Hyde's wonderful book, The Gift, as I still am. And his conception of the creative enterprise as explored in that book was very important to me in how I came to understand the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, during the years of the gold rush… I would also like to make some very brief but heartfelt individual thanks.
To my editors, Sarah Holloway and Max Porter, whose influence on The Luminaries has been conspiratorial, rigorous, and for me, incredibly personally sustaining. To my publishers Fergus Barrowman, Philip Gwyn Jones and Sigrid Rausing, who were kind enough to take a chance on me? And to my dear agent Caroline Dawnay in whom I trust completely… Lastly I would like to thank the Man Booker Prize and this year's judging panel for considering my work alongside the work of such wonderful and important shortlisted writers for providing the value and the worth, jointly, of this extraordinary prize”.
The judges also emphasized that the length never poses a problem even if it’s a great novel. The Luminaries, a publisher’s nightmare, is a novel you pan, as if for gold, and the returns are huge. Those of us who didn’t read it on e-readers got a full-body workout from the experience. A complex novel published by Granta, The Luminaries makes the readers follow the events without feeling the length of it. It tells of adventures and crimes of travelers coming to New Zealand to search for gold.
The epic tale of love, murder, conspiracy, and deceit set in 1866 lesser known New Zealand gold rush, tells the tale of Edinburg-born Walter Moody, who lands in Hokitika, New Zealand, with a plan to dig for gold on 27th January 1866. Upset by a stormy, traumatic crossing, he seeks shelter in the hotel he comes across, only to stumble upon a secret meeting by twelve local men. Over the course of the evening, each of the group tells their part in a story that has been puzzling the town over two weeks. The story involves a missing rich man, a dead hermit, a huge sum in gold, and a beaten-up whore. Catton has given each one gathered the personality stereotypical to an astrological sign. Her descriptions are meticulous and precise.
A wealthy man has vanished; a whore has tried to end her life. An enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. There is hidden gold and there are prostitutes; there are drunkards and shipwrecks, séances, and murder too. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery. A network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky. The multiple voices take turns to tell their own stories and gradually what happened in Hokitika on New Zealand's South Island is revealed.
The characters are in New Zealand, who are pale, waxen, grievously wounded, bone thin, fogged by opium, or redolent of the sea in a rugged region plagued by shipwrecks, move through alongside the living: dead or alive, to make and to gain- the one thing that disrupts them is love. Catton gives a vibrant sense of New Zealand’s terrain, its rowdy gold rush and veneer of civilization which has begun to fame it. The murder mystery, however, explores identity, greed and human trailing.
Macfarlane, in his announcement speech, described the debut novel as being “animated by a weird struggle between compulsion and conversion: within its pages, men and women proceed according to their fixed fates, while gold – as flakes, nuggets, coins and bars – ceaselessly shifts its shapes around them.”
“With The Luminaries I had a question that I wanted to ask, and the question led me in my research from book to book, and in my writing from scene to scene, and I still do not feel that I have answered the question in a definitive sense, but the book is the answer to that question. The question to do with self-knowledge of your own destiny corrupts a person.
A lot of the characters in the book are engaged with their own past”, said Catton at the post-award press meet. Kristy Gunn, a novelist and writer of short stories of New Zealand, writing in The Guardian, observes, “The Luminaries is a consummate literary page turner. Catton has created her own world in The Luminaries, - an upside-down, southern Hemisphere kind of a place with its own astrological calendar that casts its own kind of influence, its own light”. “The Luminaries is a heart-pounding sport of the manifold suspects, witness, and possible accompanies that reminds readers of the excitement of storytelling”, says the Publishers Weekly.
Four years ago her debut novel, The Rehearsal, is a mesmerizing, labyrinthine, intricately patterned, and astonishingly original novel. It's really something else entirely. With The Rehearsal one gets the style, the sophistication, the boundless possibility and the narrative pleasures. The wildly brilliant and precious first novel was widely praised and nominated for awards and prizes including: the 2009 Betty Trask Award, the Adam Prize in Creative Writing, and Amazon Prize in 2010, as well as long-listed for the Orange Prize, short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize, and shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award in 2008. It has since been published in 17 territories and 12 languages.
Catton, the last winner of the Booker, which is presently confined to writers from the Commonwealth countries and Ireland, was born in Canada and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. Completing an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and an MA in fiction writing from International Institute of Modern Letters, she held an adjunct professorship at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Currently she lives in Auckland with her ‘big bag’, which she had bought a new one as her book would not fit into old one. This is what Catton described her immediate reaction to the news of her win.
- Dr. Ashok K Choudhury, a lit critic & postdoctoral scholar, is with India’s National Academy of Letters.