Booker Prize made Catton a luminary in her own right

Last updated 06:50 31/12/2013
Eleanor Catton
PHIL DOYLE/Fairfax NZ
FORTHRIGHT AND WHIMSICAL: Eleanor Catton is the second Kiwi to win one of literature's top prizes.

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Eleanor Catton is the youngest person to win the Man Booker Prize and her book, The Luminaries, is the longest novel to win it.

Since she won the prize and became famous, the 28-year-old has had to adjust to a world where journalists ask her about these facts.

"One interviewer asked me if becoming the youngest winner of the Booker Prize had been intentional," she told an interviewer in November.

"I looked at her funny, and she rushed on to amend her question: Well, had writing the longest book ever to win the prize been intentional?

"I'm not sure how to answer questions like that, and there have been a lot of them. They seem to confuse writing with headline- making. I didn't set out to break a record."

Catton, as everyone now knows, is only the second New Zealander to win the prize - the first was Keri Hulme in 1985, the year Catton was born.

She was born in Canada, the daughter of a New Zealand philosophy academic and a librarian. The family moved to New Zealand when she was 6, and she went to Burnside High School and Victoria University of Wellington.

A profile in the New York Times said the writer "has long hair, a thick New Zealand accent that renders 'went' as 'wint', and a manner that is both forthright and whimsical."

She told the Times that her father, the philosopher, used to rouse her and her two siblings out of bed to admire the night sky.

"Stars were a big part of my childhood," she said. "My dad would be almost weeping, overcome with emotion at this extraordinary celestial object, and we'd just be feeling cold."

The Luminaries, which took her three years to write, is a detective or ghost story set in 19th century Hokitika, a rumbustious tale filled with colourful characters. There is a prostitute addicted to opium, gold prospectors and hustlers, a defunct alcoholic with a huge fortune, a sea captain with a shady past. But underneath this exciting tale is an elaborate structure based on astrology.

Each of the 12 central characters represent a sign of the zodiac, and each of the 12 parts of the novel get shorter, imitating the waning of the moon throughout its monthly cycle.

The critics praised its originality and its structural intricacy - but early reviews when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker tended to be hostile in her own country.

"I think all of the reviews I've had that have been big profile reviews from New Zealanders have been very cold, and the reviews I have had from the UK so far have been very warm," she told the New Zealand Herald newspaper in November.

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"Even when the reviewers are talking about what they don't like about the book, they will say, 'there's still something exciting going on here', whereas I feel like the New Zealand ones have been more concerned with devaluing the book." Meaner? "Definitely meaner."

She also complained about "bullying" Kiwi reviewers, especially males. "People whose negative reaction has been most vehement have all been men over about 45," she told London's Guardian in October.

Later, however, she softened this. "It's also important for me to say that all of the early endorsements for The Luminaries were from men; a great many of my most considered reviews have been from men; and I relied upon the intelligence, sensitivity, and insight of a great many men in writing the book," she said.

Catton has said she will put the $100,000 prize money towards a house with her partner, American poet Steve Toussaint.

In the New Year's Honours List 2014 she was made a Member of the Order of New Zealand.

- The Dominion Post

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