Kiwi Eleanor Catton wins Man Booker Prize

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New Zealand author Eleanor Catton poses after being announced the winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, holding her prize and her book for the photographers. Photo / AP
New Zealand author Eleanor Catton poses after being announced the winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, holding her prize and her book for the photographers. Photo / AP

New Zealander Eleanor Catton has won the prestigious Man Booker Prize this morning.

At 28, she becomes the youngest author to ever win the award.

Her novel, The Luminaries, set in 1866 gold-rush Hokitika, with its structure and narrative propelled by 12 men aligned to 12 signs of the zodiac, the 832-page murder-mystery has divided reviewers, electrifying many, baffling others.

You can read an extract from 'The Luminaries' at the bottom of this article.

She is the second New Zealander to win the Booker, with Keri Hulme winning in 1985 for The Bone People.

Lloyd Jones was shortlisted for Mr Pip in 2007.

Speaking from the awards dinner in London, Catton said she was "just absolutely over the moon''.

She told Radio New Zealand hearing her book announced as the winner felt "like I'd been plunged into a bath of ice''.

"The only thought that I could think of was that I had prepared a speech but I had superstitiously hidden it at the bottom of my handbag because it seemed like tempting fate to put it at the top of my handbag. And then I had to root through to find it and it was very embarrassing.

"Ever since then I've just been kind of whisked away and there's been interview after interview and it feels extremely overwhelming to be honest.''

She said it had been lovely to meet the other authors and share a stage with them.

"One of the things about prize ceremonies of this kind is that as soon as you meet all of the other authors you realise that you're not competitors at all, you're all colleagues and you're all making art and caring about what you're doing.''

Asked how the win would change her life, she said it was a little bit daunting.

"I'm a tiny wee bit worried, I don't know how this is going to solidify in my mind in the days to come, but I'm really conscious of the fact that struggle is really important for art and if artists stop struggling they lose something, they lose a kind of intensity or whatever it is, so I'm going to have to keep that in mind in the years to come.

"I really don't want to rest on my laurels in any way.''

Catton said her colleagues and students at Manukau Institute of Technology were holding a brunch and watching the prize announcement.

"I've been really happy tonight knowing that's happening back home.''

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In accepting the award, Catton said her book was "a publisher's nightmare.''

She said she was very aware of the pressures on contemporary publishing to make money.

"It is no small thing that my primary publishers ... never once made those pressures known to me while I was writing this book,'' she said.

"I was free throughout to concern myself not of questions of value, but of worth.''

She was presented with the award, one of the world's highest literary prizes, by the Duchess of Cornwall.

Catton thanked her partner, poet Steve Toussaint and said his "kindness, patience and love'' was written on every page of her book.

The Prime Minister has congratulated Catton on winning the Man Booker Prize.

John Key said the award was "a hugely significant achievement on the world stage for a New Zealander".

"It is made even more extraordinary by the fact that Eleanor Catton, at 28 years of age, is the youngest ever author to receive the prize, and The Luminaries is only her second novel.

"This will be a tremendous boost for young New Zealanders in the arts and is a testament to the obvious talent and hard work of Eleanor Catton."

Catton's success should inspire aspiring writers of all ages to start writing the next great New Zealand novel, said National Librarian Bill Macnaught.

"I congratulate Eleanor Catton on becoming the youngest-ever Booker winner," said Mr Macnaught. "And I note with pride that she credits her research on the Library's Papers Past website with providing insight into the historical period and places the novel is set in.

"The ethos of the National Library - whether it's through our Services to Schools programmes or the hugely popular Papers Past site - is to give New Zealanders access to the knowledge we collect and turn it into value. And didn't she just.

"The National Library hopes Eleanor's terrific achievement will encourage other New Zealanders to find inspiration in the resources we provide."

Friends and fans have rushed to congratulate Catton on her win, posting on her facebook page and Twitter (read a selection of tweets below).

In winning the Booker, the Auckland writer has become the youngest-ever person to take the prize.

That may have its downside. Catton has spoken of how making the Booker shortlist has cut her life in two: the "Eleanor" public life, and the "Ellie" private life.

"I can feel the public side of my life and the private side of my life sort of drifting away from one another."

Catton recently told the Herald that her London agent advised her that "either she doesn't win the prize, in which case she has had a wonderful time and can go back to her own life".

The Man Booker judges described it as "a New Zealand Twin Peaks".

As one observer has commented, "Her understanding of male characters, and prostitutes and smoking opium is amazing. It's as if she has lived a much more colourful, wild life than the young woman you read about or listen to on the radio."

Not everyone has praised The Luminaries. Critic Robert McCrum wrote in the Observer: "This sprawling mystery, a Victorian pastiche set in Victorian New Zealand, is replete with red herrings, astrological symbolism, and suspended revelations.

"A doorstop of a novel, by a New Zealander who appears to have swallowed a dictionary, it is by Trollope out of Wilkie Collins, possibly suckled by John Fowles.

"At more than 800 pages, it left this reader wishing that Catton had also paid homage to Robert Louis Stevenson whose best line, surely, is 'the only art is to omit'. On page 342, Catton supplies a story-so-far from the point of view of the protagonist Walter Moody. If you are unemployed, or marooned on a desert island, this timely round-up might give you the courage to investigate the next 500 pages."

Jim Crace was seen as the narrow favourite to take the Booker with Harvest, with Catton put at second-equal with Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary.


On Twitter, #ManBookerPrize, Eleanor Catton and The Luminaries were the top three trending topics in New Zealand at 11am.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Eleanor Catton, 28, was born in Ontario, Canada, and moved to Christchurch with her family at age 6.

She lives in Mt Eden with her poet partner Steve Toussaint, who she met while doing a writers' workshop in Iowa.

Her Man Booker-winning novel, The Luminaries, is set in 1866 gold-rush Hokitika, and was described by prize judges as "a New Zealand Twin Peaks".

Catton's first novel, The Rehearsal, was released in 2008 when she was 22. It won the UK Society of Authors' Betty Trask Award, and it was long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award and the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction.

Catton has also won the 2007 Sunday Star-Times short story competition, the 2008 Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship, and best first book of fiction in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2009.

She told the New Zealand Herald she found out about the Booker shortlist while in Dublin's Trinity College library.

While she had been anxious about the shortlist, she said in September she was relaxed about the prize itself.

"I feel quite differently about the eventual outcome of the prize than I did about the shortlist. I was quite anxious about the shortlist but now that it has come out I feel very Zen about the actual prize."

She is the third New Zealander to be shortlisted for the Booker, after Keri Hulme, who won in 1985, for The Bone People and Lloyd Jones, who was shortlisted for Mr Pip in 2007.

The winner receives a £50,000 prize.

THE FINALISTS
• Jim Crace - Harvest
• Eleanor Catton - The Luminaries
• Jhumpa Lahiri - The Lowland
• Colm Toibin - The Testament of Mary
• NoViolet Bulawayo - We Need New Names
• Ruth Ozeki - A Tale for the Time Being

READ MORE:
Read the first chapter of The Luminaries here
Book review: The Luminaries
Interview with Eleanor Catton
Twelve Questions: Eleanor Catton
Talented newcomer basks in glory of glowing reviews

You can read an extract from 'The Luminaries' at the bottom of this article.

Eleanor Catton's full Man Booker Prize acceptance speech:


Thank you. When I began writing The Luminaries, I was very much in the thrall of Lewis Hyde's wonderful book, The Gift, as I still am.

And his conception of the creative enterprise as explored in that book was very important to me in how I came to understand the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, during the years of the gold rush.

The region is rich in two very different minerals, gold, prized by Europeans for its value, and greenstone or pounamu, prized by Maori for its worth.

Gold being pure currency, can only be bought and sold. Pounamu as a symbol of belonging and prestige, can only be given.

An economy based on value, in Lewis Hyde's conception, is not necessarily inferior to an economy based on worth, but the two must somehow be reconciled in the life of an artist who wishes to make a living by his or her gift, by his or her art.

On the West Coast, this intersection of economies has a national significance, speaking as it does to New Zealand's essentially bicultural heart.

I am very aware of the pressures upon contemporary publishing to make money and to remain competitive in a competitive world, and I know that it is no small thing that my primary publishers, Granta, here in London, and Victoria University Press in New Zealand, never once made these pressures known to me while I was writing this book.

I was free throughout to concern myself of questions not of value, but of worth.

This is all the more incredible to me because The Luminaries is and was from the very beginning, a publisher's nightmare. The shape and form of the book made certain kinds of editorial suggestions not only mathematically impossible, but even more egregious, astrologically impossible.

A very sensible email from one of my two editors, Sarah Holloway or Max Porter, might have even earned the very annoying and not at all sensible reply, 'well you would think that, being a virgo'.

I am extraordinarily fortunate to have found a home at these publishing houses and to have found friends and colleagues and people who have managed to strike an elegant balance between making art and making money.

To everybody at Granta and at Victoria University Press back home, thank you.

I would also like to make some very brief but heartfelt individual thanks. To my editors, Sarah Holloway and Max Porter, whose influence on The Luminaries has been conspiratorial, rigorous, and for me, incredibly personally sustaining.

To my publishers Fergus Barrowman, Philip Gwyn Jones and Sigrid Rausing, who were kind enough to take a chance on me.

And to my dear agent Caroline Dawnay in whom I trust completely.

I must also thank my beloved, Steve Toussaint, whose kindness, patience and love is written on every page of my book.

Lastly I would like to thank the Man Booker Prize and this year's judging panel for considering my work alongside the work of such wonderful and important writers as NoViolet Bulawayo, Jim Crace, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ruth Ozeki, and Colm Toibin, and also for providing the value and the worth, jointly, of this extraordinary prize. Thank you.

BOOK EXTRACT: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton


Eleanor Catton's 823-page book has been described as a "Kiwi Twin Peaks" - an astrological mystery set in 1866 Hokitika. Here is the first chapter of the novel:

Chapter One: Mercury In Sagittarius
In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika; a secret council is disturbed.

The twelve men congregated in the smoking-room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. For all their variety of comportment and dress - frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill - they might have been twelve strangers on a railway-car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway - deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.

Such was the perception of Mr Walter Moody, from where he stood in the doorway with his hand upon the frame. He was innocent of having disturbed any kind of private conference, for the speakers had ceased when they heard his tread in the passage; by the time he opened the door, each of the twelve men had resumed his occupation (rather haphazardly, on the part of the billiard-players, for they had forgotten their places) with such a careful show of absorption that no-one even glanced up when he stepped into the room.

The strictness and uniformity with which the men ignored him might have aroused Mr Moody's interest, had he been himself in body and temperament. As it was, he was queasy and disturbed. He had known the voyage to West Canterbury would be fatal at worst, an endless rolling trough of white water and spume that ended on the shattered graveyard of the Hokitika bar, but he had not been prepared for the particular horrors of the journey, of which he was still incapable of speaking, even to himself. Moody was by nature impatient of any deficiencies in his own person - fear and illness both turned him inward - and it was for this reason that he very uncharacteristically failed to assess the tenor of the room he had just entered.

Moody's natural expression was one of readiness and attention. His grey eyes were large and unblinking, and his supple, boyish mouth was usually poised in an expression of polite concern. His hair inclined to a tight curl; it had fallen in ringlets to his shoulders in his youth, but now he wore it close against his skull, parted on the side and combed flat with a sweet-smelling pomade that darkened its golden hue to an oily brown. His brow and cheeks were square, his nose straight, and his complexion smooth. He was not quite eight-and-twenty, still swift and exact in his motions, and possessed of the kind of roguish, unsullied vigour that conveys neither gullibility nor guile. He presented himself in the manner of a discreet and quick-minded butler, and as a consequence was often drawn into the confidence of the least voluble of men, or invited to broker relations between people he had only lately met. He had, in short, an appearance that betrayed very little about his own character, and an appearance that others were immediately inclined to trust.

Moody was not at all unaware of the advantage his inscrutable grace afforded him. Like most excessively beautiful persons he had spent many hours gazing at his own reflection, and in a way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior. He had passed a great many hours in the alcove of his private dressing room, where the mirror tripled his image into profile, half-profile, and square: Van Dyck's Charles, though a good deal more striking. It was a private practice, and one he would likely have denied - for how roundly self-examination is condemned, by the moral prophets of our age! As if the self had no relation to the self, and one only looked in mirrors to have one's arrogance confirmed; as if the act of self-regarding was not as subtle, fraught, and ever-changing as any bond between twin souls. In his fascination Moody sought less to praise his own beauty than to master it. Certainly whenever he caught his own reflection, in a window-box, or in a pane of glass after nightfall, he felt a thrill of satisfaction - but as an engineer might feel, chancing upon a mechanism of his own devising and finding it splendid, flashing, properly oiled, and performing exactly as he had predicted it should.

He could see his own self now, poised in the doorway of the smoking-room, and he knew that the figure he cut was one of perfect composure. He was near trembling with fatigue; he was carrying a leaden weight of terror in his gut; he felt shadowed, even dogged; he was filled with dread. He surveyed the room with an air of polite detachment and respect.

- APNZ

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