Catton's novel -- only her second -- beat works from literary heavyweights such as Colm Tóibín ("The Testament of Mary") and Jhumpa Lahiri ("The Lowland") for a prize of 50,000 pounds -- about $80,000.
Here is a description of "The Luminaries" from Man Booker: Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve 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.
According to her bio, Catton was born in Canada and raised in New Zealand. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she also held an adjunct professorship, and an MA in fiction writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters. She currently lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
The prize, which is in its 45th year, will change considerably next year, when the competition is expanded from the British Commonwealth to all English-language novels. It will be interesting to see whether an American can make an immediate splash.
The winner of the Man Booker Prize 2012 was "Bring Up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel.