28-Year-Old Eleanor Catton Wins Britain’s Top Book Prize

The New Zealander is the youngest person ever to take the Booker. Her victory comes in the final year before American writers are allowed into the competition

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Olivia Harris / Reuters

The judges announced Tuesday that a New Zealand author, Eleanor Catton, has won the 45th Man Booker Prize, England’s most prestigious literary award, for her novel The Luminaries.

The choice comes as a surprise to say the least. At 28, Catton is the youngest writer ever to win the Booker. She’s also only the second New Zealander — Keri Hulme won it in 1985 with The Bone People. And The Luminaries, at 832 pages, is the longest novel ever to take the prize. She beat out, among others, Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri, whose novel The Lowland was on the shortlist. (Lahiri, in case you’re wondering, was born in the U.K.—that’s why she’s eligible for the Booker.)

The Luminaries is a historical novel set in 1866 in New Zealand during the gold rush, and features an extraordinarily elaborate formal scheme involving the 12 signs of the zodiac, seven planets, and the sun and the moon (the “luminaries” of the title). The book has 12 sections, the first of which contains 12 chapters, the second 11, and so on. Its actual plot is an intricate murder mystery, in which twelve characters—among them a Maori gemstone hunter, a Chinese goldsmith, and an opium-addicted prostitute—enact a stately dance of coincidence and confusion, fate and chance. The novel, Catton’s second, was reviewed rapturously in the U.K. In a gift to Catton and her publisher, the book’s release in the U.S. came Tuesday.

Catton’s win also signals the end of an era: for 45 years the Man Booker Prize has been defined by the rule that only authors from Commonwealth nations and Ireland are considered. Next year anyone writing in English—even Americans!—can enter. “We are embracing the freedom of English in all its vigour, its vitality, its versatility and its glory wherever it may be,” said Jonathan Taylor, chairman of the trustees of the Man Booker Prize. “We are abandoning the constraints of geography and national boundaries.”

(More: Why Americans Shouldn’t Be Considered for the Booker Prize)

There has been considerable outcry about this in British literary circles. “There’s a certain cultural cringe in this country to the big American books,” said Julian Barnes, who won the prize in 2011 for Sense of an Ending, “and I fear that British writers will win [the prize] much less often. And often the Booker gives a platform to young writers and encourages them, and that, I think, is much less likely to happen.”

Philip Hensher, who was shortlisted for the prize in 2008, expressed similar feelings.  “From next year, the floodgates open, and we can expect never to hear again from an Indian novelist,” he wrote in an essay in The Guardian. “It is hard to think of any prize that has gained in authority by demolishing its boundaries. The prize starts to go to any old stuff that demonstrates that the boundaries have gone. It will be a brave Booker panel in 2014 that doesn’t give the prize to an American novel.”

Personally, I both agree and disagree. As Radhika Jones wrote here last month, “the Booker was founded on an anachronism: its criteria for selection drew on the contours of a past empire.” The Booker’s limitations were its strength: the warp of England’s colonial past and the woof of vibrant post-colonial voices together created a marvelous tapestry. Mixing that up with a bunch of American yarns (to strain the textile metaphor) is only going to produce a less interesting tangle.

Where I disagree with Barnes and Hensher is that I don’t expect Americans to dominate—that strikes me as the characteristic English humility reflex. The best book I’ve read this year, by a long chalk, was by an Englishwoman: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. In fact if there’s a Booker scandal here, it’s that Atkinson didn’t even make the longlist for this year’s Booker.

Fortunately Life After Life was honored by The Guardian with this year’s official Not the Booker Prize. Catton will receive 50,000 pounds (about $80,000) for her win. Atkinsons will get, I believe, a commemorative mug.