Booker Judge Explains Catton’s Genius
Eleanor Catton’s Booker-winning The Luminaries is a novel in which almost everyone is obsessed with the acquisition of wealth, writes Robert Macfarlane in Intelligent Life, the sister publication to The Economist. But of all riches, most prized is the earth’s glittering innards carried by West Coast rivers swollen by snow-melt and deposited in eddy pools, where they shine “like the stars of Orion on a dark, frosty night”.
Macfarlane, who is hosting an event at Union Chapel, London, on 3 April, where he will speak to the New Zealand author, might never have read the book he so passionately advocates had he not served on the Man Booker Prize panel of judges that elevated Catton’s book above all others.
Without the compulsion of fairly judging The Luminaries’ worth, he writes, “I might never have picked it up, put off by its cubical bulk and astrological armature,” a reference to its plot construction involving star signs.
“What a loss that would have been,” Macfarlane continues. “I have now read it three times – 2,496 pages in sum – and each reading has yielded new dividends.
Some critics have carped that the book was too long and needed a good edit. Macfarlane is not of their number: “Out of Catton’s patient prose emerges a world so completely realised that you feel part of its population,” he enthuses.
That population, of course, is in thrall to the lure of lucre: “It is a community driven by capital, in which relationships are ruled by cost-benefit analysis. [But] one of the few transactions to defeat this fierce logic is the unconditional love that develops between two characters: a young prospector and a whore.
“Their love eventually emerges as a gold standard: a touchstone with which to test the value of all things.”
And it is herein, Macfarlane argues, lies Catton’s genius. Her book is, apparently, devoted to the excavation of the earth’s hidden wealth but instead “ends up delving into the heart’s interior to find true worth.”