Eleanor Catton is the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize, and a record-shattering winner at that. At just twenty-eight years old, the New Zealander is now the youngest winner ever, edging out Ben Okri by four years; no doubt her success has young writers anxiously eyeing up their twenties. Her novel, The Luminaries, is also the longest novel to ever win by a long-shot – its 832 pages easily outstrip the 672 pages of the previous holder of that record, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
The Luminaries is set in 19th century New Zealand during the country’s gold rush. Part murder mystery and part historical novel, the story follows Walter Moody, who comes to the small town of Hokitika to make his fortune, when he encounters a clandestine meeting of twelve local men attempting to make sense of unsolved crimes. While writing the novel, Catton only read books written prior the time frame of her novel, and with fallen women, murders, suicides, and plot twists, the story convincingly emulates the concerns and register of a Victorian novel.
While The Luminaries offers a perspicuous investigation of the relationship between truth and fiction, free will and predetermination, its force is derived from the incorporation of the zodiac into the narrative scheme. Catton says she was drawn to Carl Jung’s theory of the zodiac as “a primitive psychological system, an external projection that enacts, and reflects, the basic architecture of stories”. Consequently, the twelve signs serve as a kind of musculature for the novel, guiding the formal structure – twelve sections, each half the length of its predecessor – and the characters grounded in twelve psychological archetypes. But The Luminaries is no mere character novel: as part of her research for the story, Catton calculated the positions of the planets relative to New Zealand in 1866.
Chair of the judges Robert MacFarlane praised The Luminaries as “a dazzling work, luminous, vast.” “Vast” is the word indeed – even Catton admitted she had to buy a larger handbag to hold her door-stopping work. A side-by-side comparison of MacFarlane’s remarks to the infamous statement made by Stella Rimington, the 2011 chair of judges, in which she prioritised “readability”, must be one of the best object lessons in the variability and subjectivity of judging panels. In fairness, no one has complained of The Luminaries being unreadable; rather, most reviewers have described it as expansive yet gripping. Nonetheless, eight hundred pages is more than is typically asked of the average reader. Macfarlane insists, however, that:
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.
The Luminaries‘ win marks the end of a tumultuous awards season for the Man Booker Prize. The first landmark event was, of course, the announcement of a change in the Man Booker’s eligibility criteria: next year, the prize will be open to all English language authors published in the United Kingdom. This information was leaked back in early September, forcing the organisation into making an official statement on the matter. But, because the information was leaked without any kind of contextualisation, the British literary community went berserk at the prospect of having to compete with Americans. While the competition next year will be fierce, the announcement has opened up some interesting conversations about how previous winners would have fared against their American counterparts. Presumably, the move is at least in part a preemptive strike against the inaugural year of the Folio Prize, which was founded in response to the aforementioned “readability” of the 2011 shortlist. The prize may sacrifice some of its uniquely “Commonwealth” character, opening up eligibility may be the next logical step forward in preserving the Booker’s long term viability.
But, to end on an encouraging note, this year’s shortlist was remarkably strong. It was by far the most diverse in the prize’s sixty-six year history, with the authors from New Zealand, Ireland, England, and Canada, as well as Noviolet Bulawayo making Zimbabwe’s debut on the long and shortlists. Of course, the national diversity of a shortlist can never be the sole criteria for judging its overall strength; however, it is absolutely refreshing to see calls for a broader scope finally being answered.
Dates of first published are listed, regardless of reprint or cover-edition
“Eleanor Catton becomes the youngest Booker Prize winner” via The Guardian
Eleanor Catton: “Male writers get asked what they think, women writers what they feel” via The Guardian
When Stars Align: On Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – a review of the novel via The Millions
An exclusive, extended interview with Eleanor Catton by Foyles
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, one of this year’s Booker prize judges, opens the closed doors of the judges’ meetings just a crack. via The Telegraph
A rundown of the Man Booker Prize shortlist via Time
Likewise, a rundown of the long list via The Telegraph