The clock is ticking, usually reticent authors are primping, and in a few short hours Canada’s literary establishment will be donning tuxedos and evening gowns in preparation for tonight’s Giller Prize black-tie gala dinner and awards ceremony. Writers typically tend to elbow patches and cozy knits—the “sequins and spit-shine shoe” look comes but once a year. The Giller is the most prestigious of Canada’s literary awards, guaranteeing the winner a firm spot on the bestseller list through the peak holiday shopping season and providing a level of exposure few fiction writers are lucky to find in this country. (To a lesser extent, all the shortlisted writers see these benefits.)
We, like many of you, have read our way through the short list with care. And while we are an opinionated bunch, we must confess that we’re grateful not to be on the Giller jury, for we simply do not know how we’d settle on a favourite. Forthwith, an accounting of what each entrant has going for, and against, it.
The Disappeared (Kim Echlin)BY KAORI FURUE
The Disappeared is a sensitively told coming-of-age story about sixteen-year-old Montrealer Anne Greves, who falls in love with Serey, a young Cambodian in exile during the volatile time of the Khmer Rouge. While his country’s borders stay closed, their love quietly blooms in carefree bliss, but inevitably the day comes when he leaves to return to his ravaged homeland to search for his lost family. Left behind, years pass as she desperately tries to hang onto his memory, even renting his old apartment and painting it the colour it had been when they were together. Unable to forget, she sets forth to seek him out in Cambodia.
Told from the point of view of the girl with simple yet emotional prose, Echlin’s tale deftly ushers the reader back and forth between two wildly different settings, weaving visceral feelings of heartbreak with vivid first-person details of the horrors of genocide. It’s overwhelming and impossible to put down, but male readers may have trouble slipping into the skin of the narrator who starts as a smitten girl and ends as a wise, strong woman.
The Golden Mean (Annabel Lyon)BY HAMUTAL DOTAN
Annabel Lyon takes on genius, war, the foundations of science, and the task of recreating the sensibility of an entire civilization in The Golden Mean. Her debut novel is a fictionalized (but heavily researched) account of what happened when Philip of Macedon invited Aristotle to tutor his precocious younger son—the boy who would become Alexander the Great. Lyon painstakingly tries to build up our understanding of life 2,300 years ago detail by detail: her language and choice of metaphors are distinctively, sometimes grossly, physical. It works, most of the time, conjuring up not just the nuances of time and place but a certain kind of attitude, an intimacy with blood and guts and excrement that modern life has rendered largely unavailable.
Lyon’s capacity to transport us into a different mindset is truly impressive—there’s a hardening process that goes on as you read the book, a kind of mental callus that builds up that gradually makes the severed limbs and vivisection less startling. The Golden Mean does, however, suffer from that classic error of telling too much and showing too little: Aristotle spends rather more time than we’d like describing his feelings and less than he should expressing them in dialogue and action.
The Bishop’s Man (Linden MacIntyre)BY KAORI FURUE
In The Bishop’s Man, MacIntyre bravely ventures into the landmine of the Catholic priest scandal that surfaced in the mid-’80s. The story is told from the viewpoint of the unfortunate priest, Father Duncan MacAskill, who was hand-picked by the bishop to “make these problems go away.” As more boys—now men—come forth with their allegations, MacAskill is sent to a quiet parish in Nova Scotia, which turns out to be far from untroubled.
Reading this book makes you wish you had even a fraction of MacIntyre’s talent. He gently leads us back and forth from Father MacAskill’s morally ambiguous past to his guilty present, slowly revealing details a little at a time until the whole picture reveals its terrible self. The character of Father MacAskill is incredibly complex and subtle, boldly portraying what a real, not idealized, Catholic priest may be like in today’s world. You may think it impossible to tell such a story with any humour, but MacIntyre manages to sprinkle little gems of expressions and descriptions throughout that ring so true you’ll swear you’ve heard them before.
Fall (Colin McAdam)BY JAMES GRAINGER
Colin McAdam’s Fall is a compelling, believable evocation of an elite co-ed boarding school during a particularly tumultuous school year. McAdam explores the full range of boarding-school personality types through the characters of two unlikely roommates—brooding, damaged Noel and charismatic party boy Julius—and a supporting cast of dormitory sidekicks and rivals. Noel, a veteran but not well-liked St. Ebury student is resigned to a lonely senior year when circumstances land the popular Julius in his room at the beginning of first term. Initially put off and fascinated by Julius’s messy habits and disregard for authority, Noel is slowly drawn into the roommate’s confidence, which turns into an all-out homoerotic but non-sexual crush. Noel doesn’t just want to be with Julius, he wants to be him. More to the point, he wants to be with Julius’s girlfriend, Fall, one of the beautiful female students who rule “the mind of the entire wanting world.”
McAdam uses a mosaic-like structure to tell his story, alternating sections of Noel’s retrospective first-person narrative with shorter sections of narrative-free dialogue, usually between Fall and Julius. The story is mesmerizing at times, with plot, imagery, and character working together to illuminate the heights and depths of adolescent friendship and courtship. Male readers especially will wince at McAdam’s relentless but compassionate cataloguing of masculine ego dances and the torturous lengths to which young men go to both disguise and advertise their secret fears and desires.
The Winter Vault (Anne Michaels)BY SUZANNAH SHOWLER
Grounded in Canada and Egypt in the 1960s and careening in and out of Poland and London during the Second Wold War, Anne Michaels’s long-awaited second novel, The Winter Vault, returns to many of the themes raised by Fugitive Pieces: the trauma of history, conjunctions of body and earth, inexorable displacement. At the novel’s centre is Canadian botanist Jean and her husband, Avery, a British engineer involved in the creation of both the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Aswan Dam in Egypt—two projects that involve the uprooting and relocation of whole communities. While in Egypt, the couple, who have already separately suffered loss, now experience the trauma of a stillborn child (wrenching scene alert), and they return to Canada, where Jean has an affair with Lucjan, a Polish artist who has also, unsurprisingly, suffered, been traumatized, and experienced loss.
The prose of The Winter Vault is so beautiful that it is almost debilitating—the characters speak in monologues that read like extended prose-poems, compelling but unreal. The way that Michaels uses language is incredibly affecting and the sympathy evoked is genuine, but it can send the reader into a kind of paralysis, overwhelmed by the discursive, large-scale meditations, the relentless sensuality, the unstoppable flow of loss and woe. The beauty of The Winter Vault is unequivocal, but whether the reader longs for more clear contours of plot, handles of reality to grasp onto, will be a matter of taste.