With the announcement of the Booker Shortlist, it begun -- a great time in the books world; award season is upon us. Although Canadian representation on the Booker list was exceptional (two of five), we now move on to our own country's awards.
The Scotiabank Giller Prize has now whittled down their longlist -- the shortlist has been revealed. As usual, there are surprises, but not as many as last year. Booker Shortlistees Esi Edugyan and Patrick deWitt are on the Giller shortlist, for their novels Half Blood Blues, and The Sisters Brothers, respectively.
Conspicuous by their absence are Wayne Johnston and Guy Vanderhaeghe. Alexi Zentner's debut novel,
the Northern Gothic Touch was extraordinarily well reviewed, yet didn't make the cut. Marina Endicott, finalist for Good to a Fault (which also picked up the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize) was not so lucky for her second novel, The Little Shadows. Speaking of second books, it is surprising how many of them are here -- Bezmozgis, deWitt, and Edugyan are all sophomore efforts -- and no sophomore slumps clearly.
The good news for Johnston, Vanderhaeghe, Endicott and all the other snubbed longlisters is that there's another chance for them -- the Governor General's Literary Awards shortlist will be revealed on Oct. 11.
But let's look at the 2011 Giller Shortlist: a charismatic collection of authors; young and old, hungry as well as established, and all producers of vibrant fiction.
I have to admit that if I were any of the other authors on the list, this would be the competition that scares me. Common consensus on The Cat's Table is that this is the best novel Michael Ondaatje has produced in years. Of course, another way to look at it is that perhaps the jury will be reluctant to reward him yet again; as in, "He's got his, now let's give the nod to someone else... a new voice, or a young voice, perhaps?" Previously covered in the Indigo Fiction Blog (where its quality and sensibility were dubbed "beautiful"), you can see an in-depth review of The Cat's Table here.
With the exception on Ondaatje, a theme of this year's shortlist seems to be writers early in their careers. Following on The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, Esi Edugyan continues to bury the old stereotype of Can Lit being cold and stuffy. Imagine if you could go back in time and from the beginning follow the career of Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler, or Margaret Atwood. That's the kind of promise that Edugyan is showing after only two novels. In Half Blood Blues Edugyan has opened a window on a corner of history that has been forgotten for seven decades. Her novel is built around a half-black German jazz player in 1939 Berlin and Paris. The voice of the narrator, who tells the tale in slang with a rhythm that is startling at first, is both fresh and weary, and I would not be surprised if the judges give Half Blood Blues the nod simply for its virtuoso execution.
From another rising star in Canadian fiction, Lynn Coady brings us the fascinating character of Rank -- Gordon Rankin -- the hockey jock enforcer you only think you know. Pigeonholed into a role due to his hulking size, Rank is the sole narrator of Coady's novel -- told through a series of emails sent by Rank to Adam Grix , a former friend who has written a novel patterned after Rank's life. But it turns out Grix does not know Rank as well as he thinks. Like Edugyan, Coady tells a story with a narrative that is occasionally challenging -- Rank's voice is the only point of view readers have, and that voice is completely authentic. As it turns out, there's more to this character than meets the eye. This novel has humour, pathos, and mystery, all told in a compelling narrative.
If you've been anointed by the New Yorker as one of the top writers under 40, you've certainly got a shot at this prize. Only his second book, Bezmozgis is already recognized as one of this country's top literary talents -- Natasha was extremely well reviewed, and sold very well for a collection of short stories (the tragedy of this truth is an issue that can be discussed in another blog). The reception of The Free World echoed that original, enthusiastic praise -- and the subject matter is an essential element of the Canadian experience. Bezmozgis has fashioned a new classic in the "immigration novel". The Krazansky family members are Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union, who have landed on the outskirts of Rome, with a population of others in identical circumstances. The question is where to go -- Australia, America, or Canada? How does a family deal with the stress of this situation? And most importantly, who will accept them?
A hilarious collection of short stories (often set in Vancouver) filled with satire, dark humor and dry wit, this book is atypical Canlit -- in the best sense. Gartner may well be Canada's answer to Foster Wallace, Palahniuk or Lethem; if you are not interested in the established heroes of Canadian fiction, Gartner may be a writer for you. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives skewers west coast sensibilities -- and indeed, many other aspects of modern life. Go here for an audio sample of 'Summer of the Flesh Eater' -- and if that title doesn't let you know what you're in for, I don't know what will...
What more can I say about this book? I love it, and I've been singing its praises here in the Fiction Blog since its publication. Personally, the best novel I've read this year, and my favourite by a Canadian since Three Day Road. Like Half Blood Blues, already on the Booker shortlist. Although it's hard to picture the Booker prize rewarding a western, perhaps the Giller jury will be more open minded. All that said, this is a western only on the surface -- it's a darkly comic road trip, a story of brotherly love, and the only book in recent memory that made me very fond of people who do very bad things. Patrick deWitt's second novel concerns the Charlie and Eli Sisters: gunmen for hire, sent by the mysterious Commodore to assassinate one Hermann Kermit Warm and liberate the secret of his gold claim. See here for an excerpt, and here for a Q&A with the author -- albeit a Q&A conducted before he started getting shortlisted for any literary prize laying around.