2016 Giller Prize

The 2016 Giller Prize longlist

Giller Prize longlist

I’m interrupting my #ReadingAustralia2016 project to celebrate that time of year I look forward to most: Giller Prize season!

Longtime followers of this blog will know that I have taken part in shadowing Canada’s most prestigious literary prize since 2011. Sadly, the chair of our shadow jury, Kevin Peterson, died earlier this year, but we’ve decided to honour Kevin’s memory by continuing to shadow the prize once again. You can find out more about that on Kevin’s blog, which I’m now managing with his wife’s blessing.

The longlist for the 2016 prize was announced last week. The list comprises 10 novels and two short story collections by a mix of mainstream publishers and independent presses.

There won’t be enough time to read the entire longlist before the shortlist is announced, but once the shortlist is known I will be reading and reviewing them all, as per usual, so expect some Canadian reviews to pop up in and amongst the Australian ones over the next couple of months.

The Giller Prize longlist (in alphabetical order by author’s surname) is as follows:

13 ways of looking at a fat girl
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
by Mona Awad
“Growing up in the suburban hell of Misery Saga (a.k.a. Mississauga), Lizzie has never liked the way she looks — even though her best friend Mel says she’s the pretty one. She starts dating guys online, but she’s afraid to send pictures, even when her skinny friend China does her makeup: she knows no one would want her if they could really see her. So she starts to lose weight. With punishing drive, she counts almonds consumed, miles logged, pounds dropped. She fights her way into coveted dresses. She grows up and gets thin, navigating double-edged validation from her mother, her friends, her husband, her reflection in the mirror. But no matter how much she loses, will she ever see herself as anything other than a fat girl?”

yiddish-for-pirates
Yiddish for Pirates by Gary Barwin (Not currently published in the UK)
“Set in the years around 1492, Yiddish for Piratesrecounts the compelling story of Moishe, a Bar Mitzvah boy who leaves home to join a ship’s crew, where he meets Aaron, the polyglot parrot who becomes his near-constant companion. From a present-day Florida nursing home, this wisecracking yet poetic bird guides us through a world of pirate ships, Yiddish jokes and treasure maps. But Inquisition Spain is a dangerous time to be Jewish and Moishe joins a band of hidden Jews trying to preserve some forbidden books. He falls in love with a young woman, Sarah; though they are separated by circumstance, Moishe’s wanderings are motivated as much by their connection as by his quest for loot and freedom. When all Jews are expelled from Spain, Moishe travels to the Caribbean with the ambitious Christopher Columbus, a self-made man who loves his creator. Moishe eventually becomes a pirate and seeks revenge on the Spanish while seeking the ultimate booty: the Fountain of Youth.”

pillow
Pillow by Andrew Battershill
“Most of the things Pillow really liked to do were obviously morally wrong. He wasn’t an idiot; clearly it was wrong to punch people in the face for money. But there had been an art to it, and it had been thrilling and thoughtful for him. The zoo was also evil, a jail for animals who’d committed no crimes, but he just loved it. The way Pillow figured it, love wasn’t about goodness, it wasn’t about being right, loving the very best person, having the most ethical fun. Love was about being alone and making some decisions. Pillow loves animals. Especially the exotic ones. Which is why he chooses the zoo for the drug runs he does as a low-level enforcer for a crime syndicate run by Andre Breton. He doesn’t love his life of crime, but he isn’t cut out for much else, what with all the punches to the head he took as a professional boxer.And now that he’s accidentally but sort of happily knocked up his neighbor, he wants to get out and go straight. But first there’s the matter of some stolen coins, possibly in the possession of George Bataille, which leads Pillow on a bizarre caper that involves kidnapping a morphine-addled Antonin Artaud, some corrupt cops, a heavy dose of Surrealism, and a quest to see some giraffes.”

stranger
Stranger
by David Bergen (Not currently published in the UK)
“Íso, a young Guatemalan woman, works at a fertility clinic at Ixchel, in the highlands of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas. She tends to the rich northern women who visit the clinic hoping that the waters of the nearby lake might increase their chances of conception. Like many of the women working at the clinic, Íso is aware of the resident American doctor, Eric Mann. Soon Íso is his secret lover, stealing away with Dr. Mann on long motorcycle rides through the mountains and enjoying beach vacations with Eric and his doctor friends. But their tryst does not last long. Dr. Mann decides he will return to the US, and a freak accident cuts the couple’s time together even shorter. Before Íso can tell Dr. Mann that she is pregnant, he is gone. After the birth of her daughter, the baby is taken from her. The director of the clinic informs Íso that her child is in America. Determined to reclaim her stolen daughter, Íso makes her way north through Mexico, eventually crossing illegally into a United States divided into military zones. Travelling without documentation, and with little money, Íso descends into a world full of danger. In a place of shifting boundaries, Íso must determine who she can trust and how much, aware that she might lose her daughter forever.”

the-wonder
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (Due to be published in the UK on 22 September)
“An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story. Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, The Wonder — inspired by numerous European and North American cases of ‘fasting girls’ between the sixteenth century and the twentieth — is a psychological thriller about a child’s murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.”

party-wall
The Party Wall
by Catherine Leroux
“Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall shifts between and ties together stories about pairs joined in surprising ways. A woman learns that she may not be the biological mother of her own son despite having given birth to him; a brother and sister unite, as their mother dies, to search for their long-lost father; two young sisters take a detour home, unaware of the tragedy that awaits; and a political couple — when the husband accedes to power in a post-apocalyptic future state — is shaken by the revelation of their own shared, if equally unknown, history.”

the-two-of-us
The Two of Us
by Kathy Page
“The stories in this collection focus on pairs: intense one-on-one relationships and encounters. Characters undergo genetic testing, garden, overeat, starve themselves, travel, fall pregnant, all while simultaneously driving each other towards moments where they —sometimes unwillingly — glimpse the meaning and shape of their lives, and who they might become.”

death-valley
Death Valley by Susan Perly
“Legendary war photographer Vivienne Pink has five days to photograph servicemen about to deploy for active combat. Racing to meet her deadline, she heads to Las Vegas, where she ll capture images of men who may die the next day and where she ll confront an abuser from her past to force a reckoning. Accompanied by her husband, a celebrated novelist, and her best friend, a former CIA spook, Vivienne heads out into the Nevada desert in search of adrenaline, vengeance and the perfect shot. Told in a vivid, hallucinogenic realism, Death Valley is a sexy, fast-paced tale that s part Pynchon, part Tarantino.”

willem-de-koonings-paintbrush
Willem De Kooning’s Paintbrush
by Kerry Lee Powell (Not currently published in the UK)
“An unflinching and masterful collection of award-winning stories, Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush is a career-making debut. Ranging from an island holiday gone wrong to a dive bar on the upswing to a yuppie mother in a pricey subdivision seeing her worst fears come true, these deftly written stories are populated by barkeeps, good men down on their luck, rebellious teens, lonely immigrants, dreamers and realists, fools and quiet heroes. In author Kerry-Lee Powell’s skillful hands, each character, no matter what their choices, is deeply human in their search for connection. Powell holds us in her grasp, exploring with a black humour themes of belonging, the simmering potential for violence and the meaning of art no matter where it is found, and revealing with each story something essential about the way we see the world.”

by-gaslight
By Gaslight by Steven Price
“William Pinkerton’s father, legendary founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, has died. He had managed to catch every criminal that crossed his path, except one: the mysterious thief Edward Shade. In the winter following his father‘s death, William travels to London to investigate a new lead. But when that lead is found dismembered in the River Thames, he is drawn into the dark orbit of a mysterious man called Adam Foole, who claims to know the truth… if only William can discover what that truth is. Set during the early infancy of crime detection, when photography and fingerprinting were only just beginning to be employed, and travelling from the gold mines of South Africa to the battlefields of the American Civil War, By Gaslight is the remarkable story of two shadowy men, William and Adam – who they are, what they have done and what they are hiding, both from each other and from themselves.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeliene Thien
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
“In Canada in 1991, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests. Her name is Ai-Ming. As her relationship with Marie deepens, Ai-Ming tells the story of her family in revolutionary China, from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a history of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians, the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-Ming – and for Marie.”

The best kind of people
The Best Kind of People
by Zoe Whittall
 (Not currently published in the UK)
“What if someone you trusted was accused of the unthinkable? George Woodbury, an affable teacher and beloved husband and father, is arrested for sexual impropriety at a prestigious prep school. His wife, Joan, vaults between denial and rage as the community she loved turns on her. Their daughter, Sadie, a popular over-achieving high school senior, becomes a social pariah. Their son, Andrew, assists in his father’s defense, while wrestling with his own unhappy memories of his teen years. A local author tries to exploit their story, while an unlikely men’s rights activist attempts to get Sadie onside their cause. With George locked up, how do the members of his family pick up the pieces and keep living their lives? How do they defend someone they love while wrestling with the possibility of his guilt?”

 

The shortlist will be announced on Monday 26 September, and the winner of the $100,000 prize named on Monday 7 November.

To find out more about the Scotiabank Giller Prize, please visit the official website.

Author, Biblioasis, Book review, Fiction, Kathy Page, Publisher, short stories

‘Paradise & Elsewhere’ by Kathy Page

Paradise-and-elsewhere

Fiction – Kindle edition; Biblioasis; 158 pages; 2014.

Kathy Page’s extraordinary short story collection Paradise & Elsewhere has been long listed for this year’s Giller Prize. I say “extraordinary” because it’s the best word I could come up with to describe the book in its entirety. Each of the 14 stories within it are magical little portholes into other worlds, or, as the author puts it herself (in the Acknowledgements), “explorations into the hinterland between realism and myth”.

Indeed, reading many of these stories is a slightly dislocating experience. That’s because the places in which Page sets them feel real and recognisable — deserts, rural communities, suburbia, to name but a few — and yet somewhere at the mid-way point of each story, or near the end, she drops in a little detail that makes you realise these are not places you’ve ever been — or are likely to want to visit.

Some are set now, others in the future after an unexplained and presumably catastrophic event has changed civilisation in subtle but oh-so important ways.

Dark tales

There’s definitely an undercurrent of menace in many of these tales. People are never to be taken on face value, never to be trusted, because underneath they’ve all got their own private, self-interested agendas. Many characters are manipulative, dark and dangerous. Others are weak and naive — and are always taken advantage of.

This all adds up to some pretty edgy and deeply disturbing short stories, I must say, but Page reigns it in beautifully. There’s no pyrotechnics or melodrama, although the climax of each story is often surprising or unexpected. The writing is restrained throughout; there’s almost a journalistic quality to it and I was often reminded of the very best kind of travel reportage that not only transports you to foreign climes but describes the culture, the food, the people and tries to put it into context.

Some tales also read as fables — not dull, overly simplistic, fables, but ones with dark moral messages at the core reminiscent of British writer Magnus Mills.

Trouble in paradise

As an example, one of the early stories in the collection (and possibly my favourite), Of Paradise, explores what it is to accept new people into our communities. It is set in an oasis — the paradise of the title — in the middle of the desert where a relatively peaceful community has been living in seclusion for a very long time. One day a distressed person arrives, “dragging itself towards us across sand and rock”, and she is given water, food and shelter. While the community nurses “the traveller” to good health they fall a little bit in love with her, but when she is fully recovered opinion is divided about what to do with her:

I said that she must be taught our language. Then she could decide whether she would stay or not, and if so she would have to be told our methods of cultivation and given a home and responsibilities. Others agreed that she should learn how to speak to us, but only so that we could find out where she had come from and send her back to it; there were limits to hospitality. However well-taught and well-loved she was, these people said, she would always feel slightly apart from us who had always been here.

The community becomes increasingly afraid of the stranger in their midst and want to cast her out, not least because they feel she is a burden they can no longer support.

The traveller, I pointed out, might well be a gift as much as a responsibility. She might have some skill we did not practise, she might have reached some understanding we were still groping for. Perhaps we should accept the unfamiliar and learn from it?

I won’t elaborate on what happens to the “foreigner” — you’ll have to read the story yourself to find out — but I couldn’t help thinking of all the issues associated with immigration (both legal and illegal) and border controls that fill our newspapers and TV screens on a daily basis.  And perhaps that’s the greatest strength of Paradise & Elsewhere: Page takes seemingly familiar issues, places and people but alters them ever so slightly so that they’re recognisable without being completely “other”.

As a whole, the book is a wonderful exploration of an old topic — what it is to be an outsider — but it is done in such an original and refreshing way I couldn’t help but be impressed by it. I can be a bit so-so about short story collections, but I loved this one, not least because each tale gave me something to mull over and “chew”. For that reason it’s not one to race through, but one to saviour and enjoy.

Finally, I can’t finish this review without pointing out that I read the Kindle edition of this book and was rather annoyed to find the table of contents located at the rear . I didn’t even know it was there until I got to the end of the book, by which time I had no need to use the table. This might be something to bear in mind if you purchase the Kindle edition.