Eleanor Catton, the 28-year-old Canadian-born, New Zealand-based author who last month became the youngest person to win the Man Booker Prize, has now been honoured by her home country with this year’s Governor-General’s Literary Award for fiction.
Catton won the $25,000 prize, announced Wednesday morning by the Canada Council for the Arts, for The Luminaries, an 832-page murder mystery set on the west coast of New Zealand during the 1860s gold rush. A pastiche of the Victorian sensation novel, the book has 20 central characters, each inspired either by one of the signs of the zodiac or the planets of solar system.
“I’m not an enormous fan of books where there’s an underpinning that is pretty obvious, but I just felt she made that world of astrology fit with that story she wanted to tell,” said juror Thomas Wharton, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, in an interview. “She’s a terrific storyteller. She kept me turning pages, 800-plus pages, and not just a whodunit level. It just became more and more compelling in all kinds of ways.”
He added: “I think there’s a lot of very perceptive understanding of human behaviour, human nature in her characters. It has something to say to contemporary people, too.”
If Catton’s epic is one of the biggest ever books to win the English-language honour, the winner of the French-language fiction award, Stéphanie Pelletier, added another data point to the popular notion that 2013 is the year of the short story. Pelletier joins recent Nobel Prize-winner Alice Munro and Giller Prize-winner Lynn Coady, who won for her collection Hellgoing, in snaring the prize with her short-story collection Quand les guêpes se taisent.
Katherena Vermette won the English-language poetry award for North End Love Songs, a debut collection that tracks the response of that Winnipeg neighbourhood to the disappearance of a young aboriginal man. Vermette, who identifies herself as a mixed-blood Métis with Mennonite roots, said she listened to classic heavy metal while writing the poems, including tunes by Skid Row, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and Cinderella.
Other notable winners include Matt James, who was honoured for his illustrations of the classic Stan Rogers anthem Northwest Passage, in a children’s book of the same name, which recalls the early explorers who risked their lives to seek a route to the Pacific. James had been nominated twice before, but had never won.
His French-language counterpart, meanwhile, scored her third Governor-General’s Award. Isabelle Arsenault was honoured for her illustrations in the children’s book Jane, le renard & moi, a sensitive tale with text by Fanny Britt, about a bullied adolescent girl trying to find peace. The graphic novel has just been published in English as Jane, the Fox and Me. Arsenault had previously won in 2005 and 2012.
Her collaborator, Britt, was also honoured in this year’s drama category, for her play Bienveillance.
The literary biographer Sandra Djwa won the English-language non-fiction award for Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page, which had been shortlisted for this year’s Charles Taylor Prize.
Governor-General David Johnston will present the awards in a ceremony at Rideau Hall on Nov. 28.
Winners of Governor-General’s Literary Awards (English, French)
Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (McClelland & Stewart)
Stéphanie Pelletier, Quand les guêpes se taisent (Leméac Éditeur)
Katherena Vermette, North End Love Songs (The Muses’ Company)
René Lapierre, Pour les désespérés seulement (Éditions Les Herbes rouges)
Nicolas Billon, Fault Lines: Greenland – Iceland – Faroe Islands (Coach House Books)
Fanny Britt, Bienveillance (Leméac Éditeur)
Sandra Djwa, Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page (McGill-Queen’s University Press)
Yvon Rivard, Aimer, enseigner (Les Éditions du Boréal)
Children’s Literature – Text
Teresa Toten, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B (Doubleday Canada)
Geneviève Mativat, À l’ombre de la grande maison (Éditions Pierre Tisseyre)
Children’s Literature – Illustration
Matt James, Northwest Passage, text by Stan Rogers (Groundwood Books)
Isabelle Arsenault, Jane, le renard & moi, text by Fanny Britt (Les Éditions de la Pastèque)
Donald Winkler, The Major Verbs (Signal Editions); English translation of Les verbes majeurs by Pierre Nepveu
Sophie Voillot, L’enfant du jeudi (Les Éditions du Boréal); French translation of Far to Go by Alison Pick