The Giller of Gillers

Mark Medley, National Post
November 01, 2013

Illustration by Steve Murray/National Post
Illustration by Steve Murray/National Post

On Tuesday, at a gala ceremony in Toronto, the Scotiabank Giller Prize will be awarded for the 20th time. There are prizes that offer more money (the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction) and prizes with a more illustrious history (The Governor General’s Literary Awards) but there’s no denying that this prize, founded by Jack Rabinovitch in honour of his late wife, journalist and editor Doris Giller, is (and has for a while been) the most prestigious literary award in Canada. It is not uncommon, in the minutes after the winner is announced, for the book’s publisher to place a call to the printer and order tens of thousands of additional copies. It is a life-changing award. Before we add one more name to the list  — Dan Vyleta, Craig Davidson, Dennis Bock, Lynn Coady and Lisa Moore are nominated for this year’s prize — books editor Mark Medley asked a cross-section of previous recipients to pick (or attempt to pick) their favourite Giller Prize-winning book from the last two decades.

The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro It has to be The Love of a Good Woman, for two reasons.

The first reason is that this collection, from 1998, is indisputable evidence of Alice Munro’s range. Certainly she began with her examination of small-town Ontario but, for a long time now, it has made no sense whatsoever to keep talking about Munro’s work as if it ended there.

Regardless, although those stories are set in that time and place, this is not what they are about, not primarily. And we should get over our condescending jubilation at seeing small-town Ontario come alive. Writers from across Canada have written and will continue to write about any place, any time. This is something that Jack Rabinovitch knew in his bones 20 years ago.

The second reason is that this collection represents a perfect balance between craft and story. Sensing the craft immediately in the title story, sensing her masterly control, her restraint, I can relax. I know I am not going to be annoyed by any showing off, or by cheap wisdom or a striving for edginess. It’s trust, I suppose. But soon enough I realize that it would be smart to brace myself for the actual story. For the intimacy and the reverberations, the astonishment and the mercy in each of them.

Bonnie Burnard won the Giller Prize in 1999 for A Good House, and has served on the jury twice.


Half-Blood Blues by Esi EdugyanIt’s a difficult question, but I’ll go with the first answer that popped up in my mind when I saw it: Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, the winner in 2011. It’s a powerful story that offers an original take on racism in a particularly difficult context — wartime Europe during the Nazi ascendancy. The war had been over more than 40 years when Edugyan was born, but she brought that difficult era to life and made complex people — gifted musicians in a kind of exile from their homelands because of racism — seem familiar. Their eccentric voices became as harmonious as the music she described, so vividly that I could almost hear it. The research must have been daunting but it acquires, in the storytelling, the authenticity of experience. I loved Barney’s Version and Alias Grace and admired most of the other winners that I’ve read. But it’s Half-Blood Blues that, when memory is jostled, rises quickest to the surface.

Linden MacIntyre won the Giller Prize in 2009 for The Bishop’s Man.


Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures by Vincent LamLists are inherently weird, and never definitive — it’s sobering to find one’s own novel about the possible end of the human race coming after a book about why grizzly bears don’t wear underpants — and choices about artistic items are always subjective. Above a certain level of excellence, what is “best?” How to choose one “favourite”? “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes,” as the Dodo says in Alice in Wonderland — this would seem to be a more natural sentiment. Maybe we should be making lists of books that we loved and that were shortlisted or even longlisted, but which did not win. That could be instructive!

Nonetheless, I’ll try. Having excluded my own winner, and also all those that won when I was on the jury (Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, David Adams Richards, Joseph Boyden), I’m left with 14. Like Dylan Thomas trying to select a single Christmas to describe, I close my eyes and plunge my hand into the whirl of paper, and come up with Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, because who can resist the inside dope on medical procedures? But should that count? After all, it was I who took it to a publisher. And it can’t be Esi Edugyan, because we’re both on the jury this year.

I know too much. I know too many. I can’t do it.

Margaret Atwood won the Giller Prize in 1996 for Alias Grace, and has served on the jury four times, including this year.


Clara Callan by Richard B WrightI think it was the winter of 2004. I was at a low ebb, with no interest in novels. Then I had the good luck to pick up three marvellous ones in a row: José Saramago’s The Cave, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and Richard B. Wright’s Clara Callan. From one book to the next, there was no falling off in quality.

Clara Callan mines that rich vein of sisters and female solitude, of radio, movies and the 1930s, of the Ontario-New York connection. Wright had the genius to tell his story as a series of letters and diary entries, thereby giving the reader two angles on everything that happens. In her diary, Clara Callan’s thoughts turn inward, then in letters to her sister in New York she recasts her thoughts for family consumption. The result is a kind of dance between the outgoing and the in-turning that manages to mirror the personalities of the two women.

I remember vividly Clara Callan walking along the railway tracks and the terrible thing that happened to her. I remember finding her flight by train to New York, her later assignations with a married man and her underlying gift for poetry completely absorbing. I delighted in her deep Ontario caution and her splendid courage. Above all, I recall my great pride that Clara Callan held its own so easily in exalted company.

Elizabeth Hay won the Giller Prize in 2007 for Late Nights on Air and served on the jury in 2005.


Barney's Version by Mordecai RichlerMy favourite Giller Prize winner is Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version. I first read it shortly after its publication in 1997, and since then have re-read it twice. The narrator Barney Panofsky is a failed writer with two cherished beliefs: Life is absurd and nobody truly understands anybody else. The founder of Totally Unnecessary Productions, a film company that produces dreck for Canadian television, Barney is, in many ways, a reprehensible character. Yet to me because perhaps I share so many of his views, he is also extremely likable and gives an engaging account of his life from boyhood days in Montreal to his adventures in Paris in the 1950s among artistic types. He tells us about his three marriages, two of which were disasters and a third to the love of his life, Miriam.

For me, Barney’s Version is Richler’s masterpiece, this last book a fitting tribute to his comic genius. It is a novel for those who delight in seeing pretension and phoniness skewered by a talented satirist. But the book also has a genuine interest in portraying the importance of love within family life, a love that is both unsentimental and authentic. Read it, admire it and, above all, enjoy it.

Richard B. Wright won the Giller Prize in 2001 for Clara Callan and served on the jury in 2005.


The Love of a Good Woman by Alice MunroAlice Munro’s The Lives of Girls and Women was the first adult book I ever got my hands on — I picked it out from my mom’s shelf when I was maybe eight or nine. I think I was fascinated by the expository-sounding title. I thought it would explain a few things to me. Instead, I was left only more confused by what I found inside. But it delighted me — and left a big impression. I can still remember reading those opening pages with my child’s mind. I wouldn’t read Alice Munro again until I was in my late teens. This time it was The Love of a Good Woman, which won the Giller Prize in 1998. I think I felt similarly to how I felt when I first read The Lives of Girls and Women, and as I have felt ever since, picking up a story by Alice Munro: as if I have been permitted access to another world — secretly my own. I was fascinated — and continue to be fascinated — by the way Munro is able to take us in. Each story feels so intimate — as if we are already deeply familiar with its characters, and with the story even as it unfolds. But then somehow she always manages to surprise us — both at the level of the plot, and in some more mysterious, more fundamental way. Though the pace of stories is often — delightfully — deliberate and slow, it is nearly impossible to read them without a quickened pulse.

Johanna Skibsrud won the Giller Prize in 2010 for The Sentimentalists.


The Time In Between and The SentimentalistsI couldn’t narrow it to one. There have been two Giller Prize-winning books that were deeply meaningful to me at a personal level. David Bergen’s The Time in Between, and Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists both interact with the Vietnam War. This was a conflict that greatly influenced my own family’s history. I was writing The Headmaster’s Wager, a novel about that era, when those two books won their respective Gillers. I felt a connection on many levels. It was as if those books were old friends in a deep conversation with which I was intimately familiar.

In The Time in Between, the journey of the protagonist echoes David’s own attempt to meet a famous Vietnamese writer, Bao Ninh, who wrote The Sorrow of War — a novel that I also love. I’m enchanted that Bergen’s elegant, beautiful novel arose from this actual real-world quest. While Bergen’s book is structured upon a physical journey in Vietnam, Skibsrud’s novel is a more internal and poetic endeavour. Its characters seek a kind of reconciliation with history. She writes with a vivid, modern insight into the way the past reverberates into the present. These two books are incredibly different in approach and perspective, but they are both part of the same conversation. This is one of the amazing ways in which novels can exist. They can express unique, deep, and true parts of the human experience that cannot be communicated in any other form. They can speak to each other.

Vincent Lam won the Giller Prize in 2006 for Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.


Barney's Version by Mordecai RichlerI first encountered the 1997 Giller Prize winner, Barney’s Version, when still an undergraduate, and found it a difficult book to like — the brashness, the bold irreverence, the delicious liveliness in the writing, all felt a little bit like sitting down to dinner with a wonderfully offensive uncle at Thanksgiving. When I came to it again, some years later, I was astonished that I’d ever felt any resistance to it. Presumably the delightfully wicked autobiography of thrice-married Barney Panofsky, written to clear his name and save his reputation, it manages to be much more than that. Barney’s Version is an urban novel, it pushes with tremendous verve against every CanLit trope, and is the more genuinely funny for doing so. But ultimately it is a heart-wrenching, and devastating, study of one man’s wounded inner self, as only the most caustic comic novels can manage to be. The scope of the novel is that of a life lived — a life lived through language, and humour and pathos — never failing to acknowledge the weaknesses in its characters while remaining beautifully humane in its consideration. It refuses reverence to anything, anyone, any idea — and in the process manages to preserve and celebrate the fundamental dignity in all of us. The book broke my heart, and I loved it for it.

Esi Edugyan won the Giller Prize in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues, and is serving on this year’s jury.


Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures by Vincent LamThe Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning book that has stayed with me the most is Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, for reasons both personal and professional. I admire the sentence-level skill of Lam’s writing. There is a clarity and precision to the language, like a tuning fork that has just been struck, or — more accurately, I suppose — a scalpel that has just been drawn. It takes confidence to write like that, confidence and no small amount of aplomb. (Good writing is like a magic trick that you can’t quite figure out, and I often stopped while I was reading Bloodletting to ask myself, “How does he do that?”) The storytelling is equally precise. The characters in Bloodletting peer deep into cadavers, into the unanswerable mystery at the core of everything, even science, especially science. They are prone to ambivalence and ambition, are powdered in bone dust and splattered with bile, are vulnerable and arrogant and achingly human. My mother worked as an X-ray lab technician in a northern hospital and she was often called away in the middle of the night to attend to accidents and injuries. I remember the fatigue, the sad stories and small triumphs — the pervading humanity of her work. Medicine, after all, is still a human endeavour and this is what pumps wetly at the core of Lam’s collection.

Will Ferguson won the Giller Prize in 2012 for 419.


Half-Blood Blues by Esi EdugyanThe pulse and movement of Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues has the same pulse and conviction of understanding as I hear in the notes of John Coltrane’s tenor saxophone, playing Naima. And I have no doubt that Esi Edugyan listened, as I have been doing, for 20 years, to this musical description of tragedy, hope, physical abuse, and fear, which her pages describe. They paint a stark, blunt picture of human degradation and cruelty and pain, of Nazi Germany, especially to those without a drop of Aryan blood.

I make this somewhat detailed assertion because, like Esi Edugyan, in her characters, and in my experience, we have both of us, been strongly affected by the penetrating meaning of the title. Half-blood blues, indeed! We are, all of us singing — or playing — the blues. God have mercy on those of us who sing and listen to the half-blood blues! I have endured for all these years, and have loved, the blues. Esi Edugyan, with words, writes the blues just as Coltrane plays the blues.

The reader of Half-Blood Blues should see the cruelty and the hope of black bluesmen and of white Germans, radical sympathizers who hope — and succeed — in making the blues greater and more appealing than “halfway.” We are shocked by the characters success in a society as violent as Nazi Germany’s.

Austin Clarke won the Giller Prize in 2002 for The Polished Hoe.


A Fine Balance by Rohinton MistryI read Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance a number of years after it won the Giller Priize. The writing is very clear and unadorned, and the characters have a tremendous life force. Work — finding it, keeping it, losing it — resonates like a steady hum through the story. A Fine Balance knocks at the door of that place I reserve for novels like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas.

David Bergen won the Giller Prize in 2005 for The Time in Between and served on the jury in 2007.

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