Man Booker winner Catton mines rich seam after gold rush tale

LONDON Wed Oct 16, 2013 12:02pm EDT

New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton, winner of the Man Booker Prize 2013, poses for photographs at the Guildhall in central London, October 15, 2013. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton, winner of the Man Booker Prize 2013, poses for photographs at the Guildhall in central London, October 15, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Olivia Harris

LONDON (Reuters) - Eleanor Catton, 28, is the youngest author and her 800-plus page "The Luminaries" the longest novel to win the Man Booker literary prize. But age and length should be no criteria for judging a work of fiction, she says.

"I don't see why age should be a barrier in the same way that I don't see that ethnicity should be a barrier," the New Zealander told Reuters after she became the surprise winner on Tuesday night.

One of the world's most prestigious literary prizes, the Man Booker not only carries a 50,000-pound ($79,800) cash award but also can help turn a literary work into a best seller.

Catton took issue with the notion that her book, which clocks in at 832 pages of text, plus a few pages more for explanatory materials, could put off potential readers.

"A good book is a book that deserves to be its length," she said. "That could be true of a short book or it could be true of a long book - the length is the vessel that is containing the story and it's the right vessel."

Seen in those terms, her second novel is a supertanker.

Set in the 19th-century gold rush in western New Zealand, it has a sprawling plot and cast of characters that take in a blackmailing schooner captain, murder, a whore with a heart of gold, her lover and "astral twin", opium and gold smuggling, a secretive group of businessmen trying to get to the bottom of what is going on in the boomtown of Hokitika, exploited Chinese workers and, for good measure, a sadistic prison warden.

Each chapter starts with a three or four line "precis" that looks like it might give away the plot, but never does, in a work that reads at times like a mystery novel and at others like a time traveler's view of a vanished civilization.

"I'd always wanted to write a story that was set during the gold rush years just because it was a period of New Zealand history that had always really fascinated me," Catton said.

"It had been a big part of my childhood, I'd always holidayed on the west coast and there you can't help but come upon all these old, rusting dredges and boarded-up mines and all sorts of things. All the relics of the gold rush are still there, quietly disintegrating or decomposing - so that had been in my mind for a really long time."

ASTRAL TWINS

The book also features star charts that pop up from time to time between chapters, a nod to Catton's other main inspiration, astrology.

She said that in the course of what she called "idle research" she had stumbled upon a story that fascinated her about one of the early 20th-century British kings - she could not remember if it was Edward VII or Edward VIII - who supposedly was born on the exact same day and time and almost the same place as a blacksmith's son.

The king and the blacksmith's son were said to be "astral twins" whose lives followed similar patterns, though in totally different social realms, all of which Catton said with a laugh is "probably not true".

But it inspired her most winsome characters, the prostitute Anna Wetherell, who is found near death from what is thought to be an attempted suicide by opium poisoning, and Emery Staines, a dashing young gold prospector who also is suffering from a mysterious, near-fatal bullet wound.

To say more would be to give too much away, but those readers who are not overwhelmed by the sheer bulk of "The Luminaries" may well, as the chair of the Man Booker judges Robert Mcfarlane said in announcing the winner, find it to be "addictive in its story-telling".

(Writing by Michael Roddy, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

A couple walks along the rough surf during sunset at Oahu's North Shore, December 26, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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