LONDON (Reuters) - New Zealand author Eleanor Catton won the 2013 Man Booker prize for English fiction on Tuesday for her novel "The Luminaries", to become the youngest winner in the award's 45-year history.
Chair of judges Robert Macfarlane described the 28-year-old Catton's 848-page second novel set in the New Zealand goldfields of 1866 as dazzling and very, very clever.
"The Luminaries is a magnificent novel: awesome in its structural complexity; addictive in its story-telling and magical in its conjuring of a world of greed and gold," he said.
Catton's story tells the tale of Walter Moody, who arrives in the goldfields to seek his fortune and immediately stumbles across a tense gathering of local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes.
A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk.
Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.
Catton thanked her publishers for their patience with such a long novel and allowing her the freedom to explore her theme without pressure to make an obviously commercial novel.
"I was free throughout to concern myself with questions not of value but of worth," she said as she accepted the award.
The other shortlisted authors for the prize were Canadian Ruth Ozeki for "A Tale for the Time Being", Indian/American Jhumpa Lahiri for "The Lowland", Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo for "We Need New Names", Briton Jim Crace for "Harvest" and Irish writer Colm Toibin for "The Testament of Mary".
The win by a Commonwealth author and the second from New Zealand in the Man Booker's history is likely to set literary tongues wagging again over the decision by the prestigious prize's organizers last month to change the rules for eligibility from 2014.
The Man Booker said in September that it will permit authors from all over the world to compete for a prize that had been previously exclusive to writers from the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Commonwealth.
The decision caused a ruckus in the publishing world with some British authors claiming the American publishing juggernaut will drown out the voices of lesser known Commonwealth novelists such as Catton, Bulawayo and Ozeki.
On top of a 50,000 pound ($79,800) prize, Catton will enjoy instant global recognition that usually precedes a catapult in book sales.
Her win follows 2012 winner Hilary Mantel, who won in 2009 for "Wolf Hall" and in 2012 for "Bring up the Bodies". Mantel's double win secured her the number one spot in the official UK top 50 chart and book sales of over 1.5 million.
($1 = 0.6262 British pounds)
(Reporting by Paul Casciato; Editing by David Brunnstrom)