For one night every October, a carefully selected few of London’s private members clubs find themselves overrun by the literary great and the good as people flock to the parties held by the publishing houses with books on that year’s Man Booker shortlist. So it was last night that I found myself party hopping around Soho – ricocheting between venues in the hope of making the right choice come the winning announcement.
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – a dazzling nineteenth-century mystery novel, the plot of which is dictated by astrological charts, set against the backdrop of the New Zealand Gold Rush – was by far my favourite of the six shortlisted titles, and word on the street (quite literally, as I bumped into various parties of people milling about on their way to one party or another) was that the Granta party (her publishers) was heaving, so, with barely minutes to spare, I extracted myself from the jam-packed Penguin Random House do (the venue apparently held 170 people, although 700 had been invited, not to mention the 60 guests that Colm Toibin was rumoured to be bringing with him later that night), and hotfooted it across the Charing Cross Road, and down the dingy, narrow alleyway that leads to Two Brydges, a tall, thin, teetering townhouse, seemingly mostly constituted of staggeringly steep staircases. Just as I pushed open the heavy front door, there was a huge roar of excitement from the rooms above me as the revelers within whooped with joy – Catton had beaten the bookies’ favourite, Jim Crace, and scooped the £50,000 prize.
In one room, a host of people were crowded round the television listening intently to her acceptance speech, while next-door champagne corks began to pop as the celebrations began in earnest. The initial burst of adrenaline dissipated and we settled down to wait, and then we waited, and waited some more. Every half an hour or so whispers went round the rooms that Catton was on her way soon, until finally, at about half past midnight, she eventually climbed the stairs, a huge grin on her face, and everyone greeted her with a rousing rendition of ‘For she’s a jolly good fellow’.
At only 28, Catton’s the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, at 832 pages The Luminaries is the longest book to make the shortlist, and it’s Granta’s first win (a boost that they sorely need given their recent implosion). But these impressive ‘firsts’ are perhaps ever more meaningful given that there’s a strong sense that this is the end of an era for the esteemed prize. A certain amount of controversy courts every shortlist – the judges can’t please everyone – but while this particular list was hailed as one of the strongest and most diverse in recent years, instead the debate surrounded the announcement of a provocative rule change – from next year onwards, the prize will be open to any novel published in English and in the UK, regardless of the author’s nationality, no longer just citizens of the UK, Commonwealth countries and Ireland will be eligible. Protest – from polite tut-tuttings to loud condemnation – has been voiced from much of the literary establishment, driven by fears that American writers will dominate future lists, depriving lesser-known authors the opportunity for important publicity and sales, particularily in the US. Whether this is true, only time will tell, but Catton’s win may well be the literary swansong of an already long-outdated British Empire.
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