Video: Eleanor Catton wins the Booker with The Luminaries
A sprawling narrative from the 19th-century has taken the last Booker prize of its kind
Traditional storytelling, admittedly ably assisted by sufficient shaggy dogs to power a giant sled, has secured the 2013 Man Booker Prize for the youngest winner in the award’s history.
Canadian-born New Zealander Eleanor Catton triumphed last night with her second novel, , an entertaining human comedy presented as a Victorian thriller set in Hokitika, New Zealand, in 1866 at the height of the gold rush.
Most of the narrative centres on mysterious crimes and dastardly deeds; specifically a murder, the disappearance of a wealthy newcomer, and the suicide attempt of Anna, a hapless local prostitute.
Catton (28), literally, reaches for the stars in the telling of her tale, having devised a complicated grid based on the zodiac and the position of the stars. Ironically the astrological references don’t really matter as the characters are a colourful bunch of uniformly troubled misfits with squalid secrets.
It is all very complicated, engagingly so, like a great ship sailing on a sea of ice-cream or, to be more accurate, gold and opium. These two substances dictate the action, as well as the motivations of the characters.
The assured Catton has a terrific feel for detail and narrative cohesion. When recently interviewed by The Irish Times, she said, with her characteristic serene smile, that she was something of a nerd. It shows; she uses history, science, anecdote, time-shifts and cross-reference. Her characters emerge fully developed, not particularly likeable but believable.
The Luminaries, at 832 pages, is the longest novel yet to win the prize, and also only the second New Zealand novel, the first being Keri Hulme’s The Bone People in 1985, the year of Catton’s birth – so the stars may well have had more to do with her win than with a reader’s enjoyment of the novel.
It is an audacious work on many levels. Although Catton admits to being disappointed that so many reviewers have focused on the length of the book, The Luminaries defies its epic length, such is the pace and the enjoyable madness. The pastiche has also been criticised, unfairly, as Catton sustains the period feel and the dialogue is very good. There are some hilarious exchanges.
Best of all is that it is a novel noticeably lacking a hero. Young Walter Moody, who wanders into town intent on making his fortune, if still distracted by a fraught relationship with his father, is a confirmed wimp – although he does come to life in the courtroom scene.
Catton makes a case for the unfortunate Anna, but the real star – awkward choice of word in a novel with so much astrology – is the cunning Lydia Wells, a nasty and calculating madam who exploits all who enter her sphere. She dabbles in star charts, dominates the narrative and gets all the best lines.
The plot is played out through a dozen chapters gradually decreasing in length. More Wilkie Collins than Dickens, it is true that The Luminaries may be a small novel brilliantly packaged within a vast one, but it is very funny and executed with daring, if determinedly controlled, panache.
Co-favourite since the shortlist announcement, Catton had to contend with deserved support for one of Britain’s most original novelists, Jim Crace, and his farewell novel, Harvest, an elegantly ambivalent pastoral about an England facing the enclosures. A true sense of menace stalks the narrative. Yet Crace (67), this year’s oldest contender, is too gifted a writer and Harvest too fine a work to be a sentimental winner.
Tóibín loses again
Three-time shortlisted Colm Tóibín had emerged as a late favourite with The Testament of Mary. At 101 pages, it was the briefest book to be shortlisted.
Ironically, in 1997 Crace had been shortlisted for a far superior biblically themed book, Quarantine, but it didn’t win either.
The panel selected the youngest writer, possessed of the biggest ambition, whose shrewd vision capitalised on two irresistible elements: humour, and the ever-appealing plot- and character-driven traditional yarn.
The 19th-century novel is here to stay.