Eleanor Catton has become the youngest winner of the Man Booker Prize with her “astonishing” novel The Luminaries, chalking up a second landmark as the longest book to scoop the award.
The New Zealander, who was 25 when she started the work before finishing it two years later, received the award, and a £50,000 cheque, from the Duchess of Cornwall at the Guildhall.
Ms Catton said she was hit by “a white wall” when her name was read out, and as she walked to the podium was struck by “a dry mouth and trembling knees”.
The victorious author said it was “a good thing” that the judges looked beyond her age: “I feel honoured and proud to be living in a world where someone’s biography doesn’t get in the way of how their work is viewed.”
The epic tale of love, murder, conspiracy and deceit set in the “lesser known gold rush” in the New Zealand in the 1860s triumphed over established authors including Colm Toibin and Jim Crace.
Robert Macfarlane, chair of the judges, said: “It is a dazzling work, a luminous work. It is vast without being sprawling.” It can, he said, be approached as a murder mystery with séances, corpses, lawsuits and puzzles. “The pleasures it yields in those simple ways are immense as well.”
The book has a lot astrology and star signs, but Ms Catton said she had not checked her horoscope yesterday morning about whether she would win.
At 832 pages it overtakes Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the previous longest with 672. Mr Macfarlane joked that the judges without e-readers “enjoyed a full upper body work out”. Ms Catton revealed “embarrassingly” she has had to buy a new handbag as the book would not fit in her old one.
Despite its size, which might prove daunting to some readers, The Luminaries is likely to experience the traditional “Booker bounce” with sales soaring after the announcement.
“Once you begin it, there is a static opening,” Mr Macfarlane said. “It begins in fixity and then it accelerates out of it. Once you're on the downslope the pace is irresistible.”
It was up against Toibin's The Testament of Mary, which at 104 pages would have been the shortest novel ever to win the prize.
Mr Macfarlane called it “beautifully intricate, without being fussy. It is experimental but does not by any means neglect the traditional virtues of storytelling. Its story is quite exceptionally compelling.”
Riffing on the subject matter, Mr Macfarlane said the judges had “dug into” the work three times “and the yield it has offered at each new reading is extraordinary. It is a novel about value, which requires a huge investment from its readers… but from which the dividends are astronomical.”
At 28, Catton takes the prize for youngest author from Ben Okri, who was 32 when his novel The Famished Road won the Booker in 1991. She is also the second New Zealander to win after Keri Hulme picked up the prize for The Bone People in 1985.
Mr Macfarlane described it as “awesome” that someone in their 20s had won the prize. “One tries ones best to read it independently of that knowledge. The maturity of the work, you read every sentence and you are astonished by its knowledge and its poise.”
The judges described the book as “simply luminous; a novel of arch craft and tender heart”. They came to the decision after “two hours of tough discussion”.
This is her second work. Her debut novel The Rehearsal won the Betty Trask Prize, an Amazon first novel award in Canada and was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2010.
Catton was born in 1985 in Canada and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. She held an adjunct professorship at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and an MA in fiction writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters.
This is the last Booker award open only to writers from the Commonwealth, Zimbabwe and the Republic of Ireland. From next year the prize will admit anyone writing in English, with huge competition expected from American novelists.