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Place of Return – Ellie Catton

Last night, Ellie Catton won the Man Booker Prize for 2013, becoming the youngest ever winner with her book ‘The Luminaries’. Weighing in at a massive 832 pages (the longest ever), it is the second book of a precocious author who, at 28 years old, is the youngest winner of the prestigious literary prize.

‘The Luminaries’ is the second New Zealand book to win the Man Booker. Twenty eight years ago, it was the turn of Keri Hulme’s ‘The Bone People’, a complex novel set in the same harsh landscape. Today, Keri Hulme still lives on the coast, white- baiting and writing in turn, eking out her days in the small settlement of Okatiro situated on a beautiful but remote coastal lagoon some 130 kilometres south of Hokitika.

To get an idea of just how remote the area is, the Coast is a narrow strip of land some 600 kilometres in length bordered on one side by the Tasman Sea and on the other by the western flanks of the Southern Alps. It is a wild and imposing landscape, battered as it is by fierce seas and driving westerlies that make it one of the wettest regions of New Zealand. Never more than fifty kilometres wide, the area was once the site of a short-lived gold rush. Today, the whole area is home to only 31,000 people with first the gold, and then the coal, the two staples, having been exhausted.

Strange then, that ‘The Luminaries’ is also set in the shadow of Keri Hulme’s world, in the small township of Hokitika. Strange, too, that it is centred on the gold rushes that had already attracted the attention of the English writer, Rose Tremain, in her excellent book, ‘The Colour’, published ten years ago. Curiously, both books are set in Hokitika a small town of little over 3,000 persons – but then Hokitika means a ‘place of return’ so why not for the writer. And for those who have been there, it is not so strange.

I last visited the area several years ago and started to write a story set in the same landscape (does it do this to everyone?). Recently, I unpicked it to see what it told me, which was to leave it alone. Stripped of a narrative, I was left with the description of place as below.

“It is a world that passes no judgement.

This place where nothing comes between man and his soul and the earth that beds him, a place that bides no excuses. Looking westwards, through the clumsy marriage of punga and rusting iron, there is only the Tasman in its many brazen moods, one minute, raging and bitter, the next, pausing, just as skies pause, while the world shrinks, and the waters, lulled into a sort of armistice, fall into a sullen stupor. The departing tides take advantage of the uneasy peace, and run their fingers across the soft bellies of sand in gentle caresses, but they fool no one. Pregnant with menace, expanding and contracting, explosive with the tremors of a new birth, the sea waits.

For the sea is always waiting
Ready to swallow the whale
And on the other side, flinching from the open jaws of ocean and its foam-clothed foul-mouthed spit and spray, mountains rise along a thin vein of coast. Stark and jagged, the prevailing westerlies chew at the rock faces incessantly until the sides crack and the soil starts to crab down and across and down again and further still and faster. And when the wind roars in from the south, you can hear the rocks scream and howl as they are clawed from the lips of mountain ridges, and tipped blindly through the blankets of mist to valley beds below. Here, you sense you are nearer the primeval heart of the monster than you care to think.”

Now another chapter has been written in this wild, unflinching area which can lay claim to the inspiration for two Booker Prize winners. Who would lay odds that they will be the last drawn out from this mystical and primeval strip of land, cut off from the world.

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