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Robert Macfarlane announces the Man Booker 2013 winner

Robert Macfarlane announces the Man Booker 2013 winner

Robert Macfarlane, Chair of judges, 2013 Man Booker Prize

It has been a long path to this point. We the judges began our work in November last year, and over the subsequent nine months we read 151 novels. Because I am fond of walking, I am given to thinking of tasks in terms of distance, and by my maths we read around 20 kilometres of prose as measured in 12-point Garamond. 

It was an exhausting and fascinating journey. Along the way we met ghosts, priests, scientists, missionaries, soldiers, mothers and many, many murderers – most of whom had fancy prose styles. We read sci-fi, spy-fi, cli-fi, lit-fic, hist-fic, screwball and gumshoe. We passed through landscapes of great strangeness. We were by turns appalled, amazed, saddened, bored, confided in and betrayed. 

The very best books we read reminded us of the peculiar powers of the novel as a form: among them to secure passage into regions of the mind otherwise inaccessible; to examine the workings of memory and the makings of thought; and to use the postulatory power of fiction to illuminate, criticise or re-pattern what we might consider as the real. I thought often of Milan Kundera’s severe diktat concerning the novel: that knowledge is its only morality as a form. What I think he means by this is that true novels discover what only the novel may – not the TV mini-series, or the newspaper column, or the historical textbook. To survive and thrive the novel must continue to discover what only the novel can discover, and those books we have celebrated in our longlist and shortlist brilliantly fulfil Kundera’s demand.

Before I turn to that shortlist, I must give thanks: thanks to Ion Trewin for his wise, quiet counsel throughout; he is the benign Thomas Cromwell of the MBP. Thanks to Four Colman Getty, where Dotti Irving, Katy Macmillan-Scott, Amy Barder and others have been models of imaginative efficiency. We have been generously supported throughout by the remarkable Manny Roman and the Man Group. And gratitude above all to my fellow judges, in whom I have been staggeringly fortunate: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Natalie Haynes, Martha Kearney and Stuart Kelly. They have worked with an integrity, diligence and acuity that has been, frankly, faultless. 

To our shortlist now, and thence to our winner. I take the novels in alphabetical order of author.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names first, the only debut novel on the list, and a book that zings and sings with angry energy. Our narrator is the irrepressible Darling, who tells the story of her destitute childhood in Zimbabwe and her emigration to America, a promised land which proves far from Edenic. Each chapter of this novel felt to us like a fresh adventure in language; its ‘violence and honesty’, to borrow a phrase from it, shook us.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, set in the New Zealand gold rush, slowly but deeply staked its claim upon the judges. It is animated by a weird struggle between compulsion and conversion: within its pages, men and women proceed according to their fixed fates, while gold – as flakes, nuggets, coins and bars – ceaselessly shifts its shapes around them. In this way capital and character are brought both to clash and to meld. At 832 pages, it might seem like one of Henry James’s ‘big, baggy monster’ novels, but in fact it is as intricately structured as an orrery. Each section is half the length of its predecessor, right down to the final, astonishing pages. It is a book, therefore, which does things brilliantly by halves. 

Jim Crace’s Harvest was among the first novels that we read, and it continued to haunt us through the long months of reading that followed. It describes the destruction - over seven swift days of uncreation - of an English village, and a long-settled way of life. Unlocatable in time or place, eerie and eldritch in its atmospheres, it refuses easy allegiance either to allegory or to parable. It is disturbing at the level of form, and dazzling at the level of the sentence.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is seismological in that it is concerned with the tremors and aftershocks of the traumatic event at its core. It’s a novel about distance and separation, but also about the impossibility of leaving certain kinds of past behind, however far you move to flee them. Its patience is admirable, its lucidity impeccable, and working by increment as it does, we found it devastating in the sadness that it gathered over its length. 

Ruth Ozeki’s wonderfully clever and vast-hearted A Tale For The Time Being is a turbulent story of two parts, told in counterpoint, and preoccupied with doublenesses and simultaneities. In keeping with the quantum physics that animate it, it manages to be at once tender and refined, comic and grave, hopeful and desperate. We loved its spirit, in several senses, and we are all Hello Kitty fans now. 

Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary is a spare but fiercely compassionate novel about a mother’s love for her son, by one of the consistently finest stylists writing in English. Barely 100 pages long, the compressed energy of this slender lost gospel gives it the power of a text many times its length. Its subjects are contemporary: radicalisation, interrogation, authoritarian states, and the control of narrative. Who would have thought that one of the oldest and best-known of the world’s stories could have been made modern in this manner?

These are six extraordinary novels. It has been a huge pleasure to watch the reception of the shortlist worldwide, and the acclaim that the books have already received. It has not been easy to choose a winner. Of course, though, we have done so. And the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for Fiction is….The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.


Robert Macfarlane, 15 October 2013


Man Booker 2013 winner, Eleanor Catton