Set during the New Zealand gold rush, Catton's murder mystery overcame competition from the bookies' favorite, Jim Crace's "Harvest," and four other finalists to capture Britain's most prestigious literary award. She accepted the prize, which comes with 50,000 pounds ($80,000), at a black-tie dinner in London's medieval Guildhall.
"It's a dazzling book, it's a luminous book, it is vast without being sprawling," said the chairman of the judging panel, Robert Macfarlane, a writer and academic.
"The Luminaries" (Granta/Little, Brown) opens in 1866 when Walter Moody arrives in New Zealand seeking his fortune. Instead he stumbles upon a secret meeting of a dozen men discussing a series of unsolved crimes.
He's soon drawn into a puzzle involving corpses, lawsuits and seances. Questions of money and worth are paramount.
Regarding the book's daunting girth, Macfarlane noted that as a reader, you begin to think of it in its own terms, and likened it to the best kind of goldmine.
"It is really a novel about value, which requires a huge investment from its readers at 832 pages, but from which the dividends are extraordinary. They're astronomical, to use another key term of the novel."
The other finalists included Crace's "Harvest" (Picador/Doubleday), which depicts a rural community on the cusp of wrenching change, and Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Lowland" (Bloomsbury/Knopf), a tale of two Indian brothers torn apart by political extremism.
Also among the runners-up were NoViolet Bulawayo's "We Need New Names" (Chatto/Little, Brown), the story of a 10-year- old girl who chases the American dream from Zimbabwe to Detroit; Ruth Ozeki's "A Tale for the Time Being" (Canongate/Viking), which begins when a Japanese-American novelist named Ruth finds the washed-up diary of a Tokyo teenager; and three-time finalist Colm Toibin's "The Testament of Mary" (Penguin/Scribner), a slender, charged retelling of the Gospels by Jesus's mother.
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