New Zealander of the year finalist 2013: Eleanor Catton

By Geoff Cumming

This week we reveal our finalists for the Herald's New Zealander of the Year - with a focus on our bright young stars.

Eleanor Catton says she can't wait to get back to New Zealand. Photo / APN
Eleanor Catton says she can't wait to get back to New Zealand. Photo / APN

There are short odds on which will be the most popular (and well-received) Christmas present in New Zealand this year - it seems half the country is looking forward to a long hot summer reading Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries.

Since her Booker Prize win in October, the Auckland-based author has been on a promotional merry-go-round in Britain, the United States and Canada (where she spent her first six years and whose media still claim her as their own).

Winning one of the world's most prestigious literary prizes has meant coming to terms with constant media intrusion.

Sales of the book, released here in August, are reaching giddy heights too for local publishers Victoria University Press. Publisher Fergus Barrowman said over-the-counter sales had soared past the latest efforts by mass-market kingpins such as Dan Brown and Lee Child to be the year's biggest seller.

Catton will no doubt be delighted but this singular and serious 28-year-old gives the impression she cannot wait to get back to New Zealand and back to work, including her part-time teaching job at Manukau Institute of Technology.

"I think it's better to be uncomfortable in the spotlight than to be comfortable there," she said in briefing notes prepared for Canadian media. "I'm looking forward to going home and seeing my cats and reading ...

"Not being able to write feels like hunger, but not being able to read feels like suffocation."

At 832 pages, The Luminaries works on several levels. Set in gold-rush Hokitika in 1866, it is at face value a murder mystery, told in kaleidoscopic fashion through the eyes of a cast of tricky characters. But there is more going on. It is written in the language of the times, paying homage to Victorian sensation novels. It also acknowledges contemporary preoccupations with the occult and astrology, organised according to the astrological signs of its characters and the position and movements of the planets above New Zealand at the time.

While these devices got up a few critics' noses, even they acknowledge that readers still become engrossed in a ripping yarn. It is beautifully written.

With her poet partner Steve Toussaint as sounding board, it's safe to say Catton's next project will be equally boundary-pushing.

To have your say on who should be New Zealander of the year go here.

- NZ Herald

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