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From New Zealand To New Testament With Man Booker Prize Finalists

Eleanor Catton's debut novel, <em>The Rehearsal,</em> was shortlisted for the 2009 Guardian First Book award.
Eleanor Catton's debut novel, The Rehearsal, was shortlisted for the 2009 Guardian First Book award.

On Tuesday night, Eleanor Catton became the youngest person to be awarded the Man Booker Prize in its 45-year history. Catton's book The Luminaries and those of her fellow finalists make up what has been hailed as perhaps the best shortlist in a decade, and they have been my companions for the past few weeks. It's a list spanning continents and styles, with a debut novel at one end and, at the other, one by a veteran who speculated that his latest book could well be his last.

It's not every year that I'm tempted to take on the marathon read in advance of the announcement, but this shortlist promised so much: the chance to embark on explorations that would take me to the story of a young girl's life in Zimbabwe, to the New Zealand gold fields, to an English village struggling with seismic social change, to an encounter between Japan and America, to a mother's story in a time before the New Testament, and to the center of a radical Indian political movement. This is everything an international prize should offer readers; a journey around the world and in and out of lives, a chance to discover new voices, to celebrate the many forms a novel can take, to be transported. This is one year that the Man Booker Prize achieved just that.

The judges praised NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names for prose that offered a "fresh adventure in language." It's a fiercely accomplished debut that follows the life of a young girl named Darling, from a childhood of deprivation and poverty in a shantytown in Zimbabwe to the uneasy adolescence of a new life in Detroit. Just as Bulawayo's protagonist and her friends bend and twist English until it becomes their own language, so too does the author take the idea of the novel and, with confidence and dexterity, shape it to tell the painful truth of diaspora.

Such skilled innovation is evident too in Harvest, by Jim Crace, the award-winning author of Quarantine and Being Dead. In his fable of villagers who find their ancient way of life under threat, Crace is at his very best. Harvest defies easy classification, taking on the biggest questions of our existence as social beings and compressing them into vividly drawn characters whose actions challenge a reader's perceptions of their own time and place.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin is a book read in an afternoon, and remembered long after. Mary, mother of a murdered son, struggles to mourn in the presence of a menacing character recognizable as the writer of the Gospel of John. As her watcher questions and cajoles, demanding a version of events that Mary cannot endorse, Toibin shows us how history is made, in the determined shaping and reshaping of stories. Bold, intense and exquisitely crafted, this iconoclastic imagining is a power pack of a book that, at only 81 pages, presents a daring interpretation of what a novel can be.

Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being plays with ideas of perception and interconnectedness from the title page onward. Her eponymous narrator, who lives on a remote Canadian island, finds a plastic bag washed up on the beach. In it is a Hello Kitty box containing the diary of Nao, a girl struggling toward womanhood in modern-day Japan. Ruth's own writing has stalled, and as she immerses herself in Nao's story, and that of the girl's 104-year-old Zen Buddhist grandmother, Ozeki braids together the lives of the three women. It's an intricate pattern of cause and effect, skillfully batting the stories of Ruth and Nao back and forth until the reader feels she has entered a conversation across space and time, unraveling some of the mysteries of existence along the way.

Cause and effect are also at the core of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland, a tale of two brothers set in Kolkata and Rhode Island. One, Subhash, leaves home for a new life in America; the other, Udayan, stays behind, deeply involved in the politics of his country. Udayan's radical affiliations lead to his brutal execution by security forces. While perhaps the most conventional title on the shortlist in terms of form, Lahiri's work is a measured and thoughtful meditation on home, family and the enduring effects of personal choice.

In a shortlist of memorable titles, this year's winner, The Luminaries, by Canadian-born New Zealander Eleanor Catton, is a masterwork of structural brilliance. Set in the gold fields of New Zealand in 1866, the book tells the stories of 20 characters, all of whom are implicated in an untimely death, a suspected suicide, a disappearance and a stolen fortune. While there is a compelling narrative — a mystery to be solved — there are also archetypal characters rendered alive with dialogue, and a plot that seduces the reader with revelations and reversals at every turn.

If the shortlist this year has offered up new ways to appreciate how a story may be told, Catton's win celebrates a writer whose powers of innovation are deeply rooted in an understanding of what it takes to hold a reader in her grip for 800-plus pages, never losing their attention.

Ellah Allfrey is an editor and critic. She lives in London.

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Ellah Allfrey