Eleanor Catton is the youngest ever Booker winner. But we judges thought of the book, not the writer

What seems to be just a historical thriller becomes far more profound

Share

At 28 years of age, Eleanor Catton is the youngest ever winner of the Man Booker Prize. And at 832 pages, her ambitious, intricate, spectacular novel, The Luminaries, is the longest book ever to win. It follows a densely-populated cast of characters as they orbit their way through the New Zealand gold-rush: each one on a path dictated by the movement of the stars.

It begins with a man named Walter Moody arriving in the bar of a grotty dockside hotel in January 1866. Twelve men are already present, all doing their utmost to conceal their mutual purpose. But as Moody falls into conversation with first one, then another, it becomes clear that a profoundly complex mystery is about to unfold.

Each section of the book is precisely half the length of the previous section: an immense feat of  structuring and plotting which means that this novel starts as a gentle stroll and ends with the exhilarating sense of running downhill. When people disparage literary fiction, it is almost always by saying that these beautiful characters and sentences are all very well, but what about the plot? One could silence them all with Catton’s book (and wallop them with it if they continued to disagree).

As Catton explained in her victory speech, all her characters are engaged in transactions. Gold changes hands legally and illegally, openly and surreptitiously. Bullets seem to disappear in mid-air, while the influence of laudanum waxes and wanes. Only one relationship in this glittering affair defies the transactional philosophy and is instead (as love must always be) a gift freely given. The novel, like the ever-shifting  gold within it, is not what it first appears. What seems to be a historical thriller turns out to be something  far more profound: an exploration of the power  of lucre played out in front of a canvas of free will and determinism.

Catton was 25 when she began work on this, her second novel. Doubtless there will be those who feel she has been rewarded too young: that writers shouldn’t win when they’re young in case they can’t replicate their success. But the point of an  extraordinary novel is that it leaves the writer behind. Some people write many brilliant novels, others  write only one, which in no way diminishes the achievement. No one can predict who will write  lots of great books and who will peak early. Harper  Lee didn’t write another novel after To Kill a Mockingbird, knowing she couldn’t compete with her own past. It’s why, as judges, we considered the books, not the authors. You have to forget the writers, and give the prize to what you think is the best book  of the year.

I don’t know what I’ll do with my time now. But the books have just started arriving for my next judging project (The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), so if you’ll excuse me, I’d better get back to the reading.

www.nataliehaynes.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia  

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Oliver Poole
Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup