Eleanor Catton, alumna of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has been honored with the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her second novel, “The Luminaries.”
Catton was presented with the prize by the Duchess of Cornwall on Oct. 15. At 28, Catton is the youngest author to win the Booker Prize; at 832 pages, “The Luminaries” is the longest work to win the prize in its 45-year history.
“The Luminaries,” set in 1866 during the New Zealand gold rush, contains a group of 12 men gathered for a meeting in a hotel and a traveler who stumbles into their midst; the story involves a missing rich man, a dead hermit, a huge sum in gold, and a beaten-up prostitute. The multiple voices take turns to tell their own stories; gradually what happened in the small town of Hokitika on New Zealand’s South Island is revealed.
Chief judge Robert Macfarlane and his fellow judges were impressed by Catton’s technique but it was her “extraordinarily gripping” narrative that enthralled them. “We read it three times and each time we dug into it the yields were extraordinary, its dividends astronomical,” Macfarlane says. The Luminaries is, says Macfarlane, a novel with heart. “The characters are in New Zealand to make and to gain — the one thing that disrupts them is love.”
What impressed the judges almost as much as the book itself was that it could have been the work of someone so young. Catton was just 25 when she started work on it. “Maturity is evident in every sentence, in the rhythms and balances,” Macfarlane says. “It is a novel of astonishing control.”
Born in Canada, Catton grew up in Christchurch after her family had returned to New Zealand when she was 6 years old. She studied English at the University of Canterbury, and completed a Master’s in Creative Writing at the Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington. In 2008, Catton was awarded a fellowship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 2011, she was the Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence at the University of Canterbury. Catton lives in Auckland and is a teacher of creative writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology.
The Man Booker Prize, launched in 1969, aims to promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, or the Republic of Ireland.
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is a two-year residency program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that culminates in the submission of a creative thesis (a novel, a collection of stories, or a book of poetry) and the awarding of a Master of Fine Arts degree. For more than 75 years emerging writers have come to Iowa City to work on their manuscripts and to exchange ideas about writing and reading with each other and with the faculty. Many of them have gone on to publish award-winning work after graduating.