After 44 years, in its final edition not open to American authors, the Man Booker Prize has gone out (or at least changed shape) with a truly pyrotechnic bang. Canadian-born, raised in Yorkshire but resident in New Zealand (which country’s 1860s Gold Rush inspired her massive, virtuosic novel), Eleanor Catton in her own background almost embodies the now-defunct Booker remit of British-and-Commonwealth fiction.
The youngest winner, for only her second novel, Catton at 28 nonetheless returns the prize to something like home territory.
Ever since the award broke through to global renown in 1981, around the time that Salman Rushdie won for Midnight’s Children, it has often made its biggest splash with epic storytelling that merges wide-screen appeal with the dramatisation of places, periods and people far from the metropolitan mainstream.
Think of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Peter Carey’s True History of The Kelly Gang or Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Even Hilary Mantel’s double victories for her Thomas Cromwell novels – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – cast an estranging spell over Tudor history, turning it exotic.
Far from an orthodox historical novel, The Luminaries unfolds in its rough, gold-crazy settlement, Hokitika, via a kaleidoscopic narrative.
Informed by contemporary occult ideas and by the astrology that governs the interaction of its cast, it plays on ideas of light and darkness, illumination and benightedness. Its formal sophistication reminds us of Catton’s theatre background and her flair for the arts of illusion.
Her systematic use of the zodiac map and of the theory of the “humours” to arrange a complex and teemingly populated plot feels both archaic and contemporary – almost like conceptual art, indeed.
As with her 19th-century diction and prose rhythms, it suggests that Catton has not merely inherited or mimicked an antique style of fiction but set out to reinvent it for our times. This, then, is a thoroughly modern – or perhaps, postmodern – novel masquerading as an elaborate period piece. Its play of tricks and disguises, of stories that enthral but then deceive, connects it with the neo-Victorian Booker-winning epics of Carey or AS Byatt (in Possession). Confident, colourful and subtle, Catton commands a fictional voice all her own.
At the same time, her novel carries on the distinctive line of this award so far. Next year, with the Americans in residence, it enters another house entirely. What fresh illumination will that bring?