Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize last night with her second novel, “The Luminaries.” At 28, she is the youngest author to claim the prize, and she does so with a book whose 832 pages make it the longest winner.
“The curious thing about writing a novel is that you can never see it until it’s finished,” she said at a news conference. “It wasn’t until I received the proof of the book that I was like ‘Jeepers!’” She said she had to buy a new handbag to carry her book, which wouldn’t fit in the old one.
Set during the New Zealand gold rush, Catton’s murder mystery overcame competition from the bookies’ favorite, Jim Crace’s “Harvest,” and four other finalists to capture the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award. She accepted the prize, which comes with 50,000 pounds ($80,000), at a black-tie dinner in London’s medieval Guildhall.
“It’s a dazzling book, it’s a luminous book, it is vast without being sprawling,” said the chairman of the judging panel, Robert Macfarlane, a writer and academic.
“The Luminaries” (Granta/Little, Brown) opens in 1866 when Walter Moody arrives in New Zealand seeking his fortune. Instead he stumbles upon a secret meeting of a dozen men discussing a series of unsolved crimes.
He’s soon drawn into a puzzle involving corpses, lawsuits and seances. Questions of money and worth are paramount.
The other finalists included Crace’s “Harvest” (Picador/Doubleday), which depicts a rural community on the cusp of wrenching change, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Lowland” (Bloomsbury/Knopf), a tale of two Indian brothers torn apart by political extremism.
Also among the runners-up were NoViolet Bulawayo’s “We Need New Names” (Chatto/Little, Brown), the story of a 10-year-old girl who chases the American dream from Zimbabwe to Detroit; Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being” (Canongate/Viking), which begins when a Japanese-American novelist named Ruth finds the washed-up diary of a Tokyo teenager; and three-time finalist Colm Toibin’s “The Testament of Mary” (Penguin/Scribner), a slender, charged retelling of the Gospels by Jesus’s mother.
Catton is only the second New Zealander to win the award, which began as an annual celebration of the best novel written in English by a citizen of the British Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.
Last month, a change in the rules was announced. As of 2014, any novel written in English and published in the U.K. will be eligible, regardless of the author’s nationality.
Administrators claim to be broadening its scope rather than simply making way for U.S. authors, though the news has provoked disgruntlement on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I think it’s generally a bad idea,” Julian Barnes, who won the prize in 2011, recently told the BBC. “I fear that British writers will win it much less often. And often the Booker gives a platform to young writers and encourages them, and that, I think, is much less likely to happen.”
Catton said she wasn’t worried: “It’s a really great thing, actually, that finally we’ve got a prize that is an English language prize that doesn’t make a distinction for writers that are writing from a particular country.”
Now in its 45th year, the Man Booker promises an almost certain increase in sales. Each of the six finalists, including the winner, receives 2,500 pounds ($4,000) and a leather-bound edition of his or her own book.
First established in 1969 by food wholesaler Booker Plc, it has been sponsored since 2002 by Man Group Plc (EMG), the world’s largest publicly traded hedge-fund manager.
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