Two men and two women comprised the 2001 Amazon.com/Books in Canada First Novel Award judges' panel. They are introduced below.
Daniel Richler is the Editor-in-Chief of BookTelevision: The Channel. His novel, Kicking Tomorrow, was published internationally, turned bestseller in Canada and was named one of the New York Times Book Review's best books of 1992.
Terry Rigelhof is the author of seven books, two novels, a novella, a collection of short stories, a memoir, a book of essays on writing in Canada, and most recently, a biography, entitled George Grant: Redefining Canada.
Eva Tihanyi is a Professor of English at Niagara College. Ms. Tihanyi has published four books of poetry, most recently Restoring the Wickedness, which was short-listed for the Niagara Book Prize. She served as Books in Canada's First Novels columnist from 1995 to 1999 and is a freelance contributor to The Toronto Star and the National Post.
Annabel Lyon is an author and journalist. She is well known for her critically acclaimed short story collection Oxygen. Ms. Lyon's short stories have been published in numerous journals and anthologies, as well as in the 2001 Toronto Life summer fiction issue and the 2001 Journey Prize Anthology.
The judges' comments on the five shortlisted books follow.
My vote was for Michael Redhill's novel, Martin Sloane, and I really didn't agonize a lot in casting it. The contest rules stipulated that we judges weigh over a dozen factors, including the books' psychological complexity, the intricacy of their narrative structure, the sophistication of their message and (my favorite) their overall wow factor¨all essential, of course, but my mind kept coming back to Georges Simenon's basic criterion for good writing, to enable the reader to enter into the skin of people, and only one book here vividly did that for me.
Martin Sloane wove a web of feeling and thought so completely authentic, so intimate, that reading it each night did make me feel like I was pulling on another person's skin. I'll confess that, since the novel's principal narrator is a woman, I had to check with my wife for gender-related solecisms, catachreses, boners, etc., but was assured that the voice rang true for her as well.
Another of Redhill's rare feats is the delineation of a main character (Sloane himself) who is physically barely there. To paraphrase Rushdie, there's a character-shaped hole in the middle of this book. Other novels about absence and longing, about not getting to know someone¨I'm thinking most recently about Jamaica Kincaid's Mr. Potter¨may leave you little the wiser when the search is over, but this cagey man Sloane, an artist whose very work is represented in the novel by blank pages, is a living, breathing entity, the very lung that pumps the story along.
It's not all perfect. Oddly enough, Redhill's greatest skill¨or perhaps his interest¨does not lie in the visual. Physical spaces are crowded out by the emotional landscape, and the descriptions of the artist's dioramas (which he acknowledges are inspired by the work of Joseph Cornell) lack mystery and zing. You could read this as an unintentional tribute to Cornell's uncanny skill; there are rich and promising paragraphs full of bric-a-brac¨the component parts of not-yet-art¨but when they're glued together they don't stimulate memory or the unconscious the way Cornell's boxes do.
Nonetheless, Redhill's book evokes feelings of yearning and loss, of the achingly inaccessible, which recall Joyce at times. (Among other things, there's a pivotal scene that echoes the story "Eveline" in Dubliners). And in addition, he knows a thing or two about plot and pacing; the ache and anger of his protagonist, Jolene, drive her forward where, in lesser novels, she might have just sat and stewed in her juices.
I don't mean to give entirely short shrift to the other novels on the Amazon/Books in Canada list. Joel Yanofsky, one of the judges of this contest last year, wrote that first novels have so little in common¨other than that they mark a particular author's dTbut¨that they are not so much "apples and oranges" as "carrots and cats." Such culturally-relativist assertions may be interpreted as open-minded, but lead inevitably to anodyne descriptions like "commendable" and "worthy". I'd rather take the space to celebrate the best of the bunch, without any intended slight (or ill-advised encouragement, as the case may be) to the others. They are apples and oranges, but only in the sense that some are not, I feel, ready to be eaten.
Michael Crummy's River Thieves was my third choice. It had so much¨panoramic sweep, wild action, flinty prose¨but I felt it didn't hold a tallow candle to Fred Stenson's The Fur Trade, which I'd only recently read. An invidious comparison, perhaps, but Crummy's book struck me as relatively unready; it lacked the same full-on animal smell, the punishing physicality, the stubbly wit. Put it this way: I greatly look forward to his next one.
Dennis Bock's The Ash Garden started out (and I hope you'll forgive the expression) with a hell of a bang, but in the end felt it staggered under its own weight¨the weight being Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. I always hearken to Adorno's remark that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, and although comic book artists, comedians and rappers these days routinely choose their holocausts a la carte, I was both awed and wary that Bock should attempt to novelize this one. What white Western male dares get inside the skin of a Japanese woman¨when that woman's skin has been burned off by an atomic blast?
Bock's ambition is exciting, but in trying to detail the guilt suffered¨or denied¨by an engineer of the bomb, and in setting up a fateful meeting between him and his victim, the novel's coincidences and conversations, its quotidian observations, become all too heavily freighted. I wanted to engage with this book, but scenes that might have come alive in another book seemed either potted (the flight from wartime Europe) or reverberated too heavily with significance (tobogganing in Ontario). Stunning moments¨such as when a Japanese doctor extracts, without anaesthetic, a zipper from the pubis of a teenage girl¨are countervailed by long, unremarkable descriptions and rather a lot of flat dialogue.
Another of those judges' criteria I mentioned earlier: "intelligence of philosophical or moral or human issues presented." In this Bock is without rival, and he writes scenes of considerable beauty which reveal, profoundly, how life will inexorably go on in the wake of all horror, but to put it bluntly, the bomb pretty much nukes the fiction. Martin Sloane doesn't attempt the same moral scope, but its miniature construction achieves what only the best of books do: it immerses you in other people's lives so intimately that you imagine them carrying on when the book is done. You're still waiting for another chapter.
The Ash Garden and Martin Sloane are such compulsive reading in so many ways that it's pretty much a photo finish between them. Dennis Bock and Michael Redhill have absorbed early influences, found their own voices, and propel their novels into new terrain by exploring what are, at first glance, improbable and outlandish human relationships between older men and younger women in ways that make them entirely believable and profoundly moving. These two first novels are outstanding accomplishments and rank among the top five Canadian novels of the past year¨which places their authors in the distinguished company of Jane Urquhart, Sandra Birdsell and Richard B. Wright. Both create memorable characters and situate them in complex emotional terrain while exploring age-old questions about art and life, representation and reality, in richly detailed contemporary settings.
Michael Redhill's Martin Sloane is the more polished work, sentence by sentence, but suffers from having the central character disappear too soon, and the weakly drawn relationship between Jolene and Molly in Ireland does not hold the book together in the final stretch. Dennis Bock's The Ash Garden moves me so consistently at a deeper level that its own small inelegancies are more readily overlooked. I've gone back to Redhill's work several times to mull over specific passages but I've read Bock three times through and not exhausted what it has to offer. My first place vote goes to The Ash Garden: it begins where Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient ends¨with the bombing of Hiroshima¨and Bock is likely to affect readers under thirty the way Ondaatje sways their parents.
Marina Endicott's Open Arms is the best of the rest and suffers least by comparison to the frontrunners. Endicott is a dramaturge by profession and knows how to build scenes, open up a story, pace a book, and write dialogue that is fresh and in character. Open Arms is a coming-of-age novel for our times and the part of me that is seventeen-till-I-die simply loved it for it's hard won apprehensions and hope. Endicott is enormously readable and has much to say about lives lived at the edges of the arts and respectability in Saskatoon, the Gulf Islands and Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia. This is a distant but solid third.
While I liked the risk Linda Little takes with unconventional love in rural Nova Scotia, admired Elisabeth Ruth's energy in Ten Good Seconds of Silence, and savored Michael Crummey's sense of Newfoundland's physical impression on psychological landscape, all three writers still derive too much from other writers and have difficulties with pacing and dialogue. Linda Little avoids some of the problems because her central character is largely silent. That said, they're nose-to-nose for fourth place.
The past year was exceptional not only in terms of offering two first novels that make startlingly original contributions to the contemporary Canadian novel in English but also in offering many worthy candidates for this award, all novelists of enormous promise. It's been a very good year.
In the early nineteenth century a series of devastating encounters take place between white colonials and the Beothuk on the rural, North-Eastern coast of Newfoundland. The opposite poles of River Thieves are the John Peytons, father and son, who fish and trap and coexist uneasily with the thieving Beothuk, or red Indians, and naval officer David Buchan, who is determined to establish friendly relations with the reclusive Beothuk. Other characters include Joseph Reilly, a trapper neighbour of the Peytons, banished to the colonies for crime of theft; Annie Boss, Joseph's Micmac wife, a healer; Cassie Jure, the Peytons' housekeeper, secretly loved by John Junior and bedded by Buchan, causing her to seek an abortion; Dick Richmond, another local trapper, determined to take revenge on the Beothuk for offenses large and small; a series of increasingly feckless colonial governors; and Mary, a Beothuk woman kidnapped by a party of white trappers in search of a government reward for bringing one of the red Indians out alive. She lives with the Peytons before succumbing to consumption, by which time her tribe has been driven virtually to extinction.
The spare elegance of this novel is masterful. The reader leaves it with feelings of both surprise and inevitability. The sheer amount of historical research evidenced here is phenomenal, yet the novel wears its learning lightly and never feels didactic or showy. The tragedy of the Beothuk seems preordained from the first page, yet its emotional power only builds as the novel progresses. The characters are impeccably adult¨intelligent, tough, interestingly fallible. In particular, Mary, the captured Beothuk woman, is powerfully rendered, both forbiddingly remote and immediately accessible to the reader. The novel seems to build toward a final bloody confrontation, only to twist away to a conclusion even more chilling and believable. There is no sentimentality, no stereotyping, no plot-for-the-sake-of-plotting here. The clear winner.
Dennis Bock's The Ash Garden has three lives intersecting: a young Japanese girl who survives the bombing of Hiroshima, is sent to America for reconstructive surgery, and goes on to become a documentary filmmaker; a German physicist who flees wartime Germany to work on the Manhattan project, and travels to Hiroshima after the bomb to observe its effects; and the physicist's wife, a German-Jewish refugee who loses her family in the war and suffers from lupus, a debilitating illness that prevents her from having children, leading her instead to pour her energies into her elaborate topiary garden. The novel moves back and forth in time, capturing the protagonists in wartime (the refugee ship turned away from every port, the moment of the explosion, the smell of coconut oil in the desert bunkers of New Mexico) and in the present (the final confrontation of the Japanese filmmaker with the physicist, the wife's final days).
This is a complex yet lucid narrative with huge themes¨love, guilt, the possibility of forgiveness, the choice between types of evil¨and a wealth of historical detail artfully conveyed. At times the symbolism seems in danger of overwhelming the novel. (The three main characters, for instance, represent the three continents involved in the war: Emiko for Asia, Sophie for Europe, and Anton for America.) Yet thanks to Bock's detailed and compassionate renderings of their lives, these characters float rather than sink. Instead of being emotionally and morally black and white, the story is painted in a range of subtle shades of grey, where there are no absolutes or easy definitions. Only the (literally) incredible twist ending is slightly disappointing, almost a return to the Hollywood aesthetic Bock deconstructs so tellingly elsewhere in the novel.
In Michael Redhill's Martin Sloane a young university student begins a relationship with a much older artist, who is affectionate but can also be distant and elusive. Following a visit by the young woman's former roommate, the artist disappears. After years of searching and mourning, the woman is summoned to Ireland, the Artist's childhood home, by the roommate, who has discovered some of his distinctive art works (collage boxes, after the work of Joseph Cornell) on display there and thinks she has tracked him down. But the man they find turns out to be the artist's elderly father, who abandoned his children when they were small. They never find out what became of the artist.
The prose is lovely, and the use of the boxes¨to represent emotional states, to link past and present, to give clues to the artist's personality¨ingenious. The descriptions of 1930's Dublin, from the perpective of the artist as a boy, are particularly evocative. The intensity of the relationship between the two women (not to mention that of the artist and the roommate) was at times hard to fathom, and by the end the artist's unresolved disappearance seemed more frustrating than meaningful. However, the writer's unwillingness to compromise the general emotional darkness¨no happy ending here¨was darkly pleasant.
Marina Endicott's Open Arms consists of three episodes from the life of Bessie Smith Connolly, granddaughter of staid Nova Scotians, daughter of a footloose backup singer mom and a pretentious, absentee poet father. In the first episode, seventeen year old Bess visits her mother in Saskatoon after her grandfather's death and a breakup with a boyfriend, Daniel. She watches her mother perform in a bar and reflects on their strange, unstable lives (her mother lives with Bess's father's second ex-wife and her daughter, Bess's half-sister, Irene). In the second episode, twenty year old Bess accompanies Irene on a trip to Galiano Island, where they're forced to visit their father over Christmas. The father has disappeared, leaving them in the custody of his third wife, who goes into labour shortly after they arrive and delivers twins on Christmas day. In the third episode, twenty-five-year-old Bess, pregnant by Daniel, goes off with her Nova Scotia grandmother in a zigzagging prairies/Rockies road trip in search of Bess's mother, who is particularly unstable and possibly ill. All ill feeling is patched up and there is a grand, spontaneous family reunion (Bess, her mother, her grandmother, Irene, Daniel) by the side of the highway in the Alberta foothills.
I particularly enjoyed this book for its wry, smart humour; it wasn't as relentlessly po-faced as some of the others. Somehow, despite its dangerously wild-at-heart, colourful characters and too-neat ending, the book escapes cuteness and sentimentality, perhaps because the narrator's voice is consistently intelligent and observant. Bessie's gradually maturing voice is immensely appealing. The scenes on Galiano, where she struggles to play the adult in a world that still sees her as a child, are particularly poignant. The changing landscapes of the novel¨the Gulf Islands, the Alberta prairie, downtown Saskatoon¨are vividly evoked. Unfortunately the novel's episodic nature deprives it of the long line and structural integrity of a great novel¨it's more like linked novellas.
Linda Little's Strong Hollow is a rural Nova Scotia family story about a shy young man who keeps everything¨his drinking, his sexuality, his talent for carving and woodwork¨in the closet. After his overbearing father's death from years of chronic alcoholism, Jackson Bigney builds himself a cabin on the family land and ekes out a living as a bootlegger. A brief, clandestine affair with a talented and wicked charming young fiddle player leaves him broken-hearted, but he rebuilds his life by giving up drink and teaching himself to make fiddles. By the end of the novel, he has moved off the family farm and onto the property of a surrogate father, an accomplished instrument-maker and musician who has lost a gay son to AIDS. There is a suggestion by the end of the novel that Bigney might learn to become more open about his sexuality, and more comfortable in his relationships generally.
This novel is strongest as a character portrait. Jackson Bigney is practically inarticulate with friends and family, but the author renders his consciousness with sure strokes and paints a detailed portrait of his inner life and torments. The prose is neat and smooth, with moments of wry wit, and generally doesn't call much attention to itself. Though the material¨the gay man struggling with his identity, the quirkiness of rural Nova Scotia, the drink-sodden dark side of that quirkiness¨is not particularly new, this is a clear, convincing read. Perhaps a little more insight into the other characters would have made this a more fully rounded novel.
In Ten Good Seconds of Silence, by Elizabeth Ruth, a teenage girl hears voices and is consigned by her alarmed parents to a suburban Vancouver mental institution, where she befriends her two roommates and allows herself to be raped by an orderly in order to get pregnant and thereby escape. Eighteen years later, she is working as a psychic for the Toronto police, locating missing children; her daughter, meanwhile, struggles with bulimia and is obsessed with finding the father her mother refuses to discuss.
Here is a complex structure competently handled, with all loose ends getting tied up by the end. However, the plot hinges on some credulity-stretching coincidences (for instance, the one missing child who particularly obsesses the mother just happens to date her daughter's best friend, and also just happens to be the son of one of her old roommates from her days in the institution; the daughter's recognition of her father hinges on their sharing an unusual hair colour). The prose has powerful moments but the poetic style sometimes results in stilted dialogue. The characters are vivid and engagingly eccentric but they are divided too neatly into victims and predators, as rarely happens in life.
To begin: all six of these novels are fine debuts, well worth reading (which is stating the obvious, of course; they would not have been shortlisted otherwise). However, there is one that stands out among the rest: Martin Sloane by Michael Redhill. This is a novel that is truly worthy of the phrase "stunning achievement." It sparkles with intelligence and emotion, every page a calm summer lake on which the light plays. And Redhill's exploration of the mysterious creation of art, in particular the relationship between the artist and his work and the influence of his childhood on that work, is nothing short of extraordinary. This is a deeply moving book, beautifully written, and imbued with a sense of timelessness. I completely agree with W.P. Kinsella's prediction that it will be read twenty years from now and will show up on college reading lists.
Dennis Bock's The Ash Garden, has also garnered much acclaim, and as with Martin Sloane, that acclaim has been justified. Bock tackles an enormous subject¨Hiroshima¨and does so in a way that brings a great historic tragedy into the personal realm by focussing on three main characters: a scientist involved in the building of the atomic bomb, his part-Jewish wife who escapes the Nazis, and a young Japanese woman who survives the bombing. Bock intertwines these three lives and, in the process, illuminates the complexities of being human, the unavoidability of choice, the implications of what is chosen. Most of us have a difficult time grasping the realities of mass devastation¨to stand in a cemetery filled with the names of hundreds of people you haven't known is a very different experience from standing in front of the grave of someone you've loved¨and it is Bock's "personalization" of the horrors of war that make his book so powerful.
In Ten Good Seconds of Silence, Elizabeth Ruth tackles the influence of the past¨and the healing potential of facing it. There is much to compliment here, especially Ruth's talent in creating memorable characters. There's Lilith, who as a teenager is institutionalized because her parents can't deal with her psychic abilities but as an adult works for the police department as a finder of lost children. And there's her daughter, Lemon, obsessed with finding out who her father is, a quest with which Lilith, for reasons of her own, refuses to help. Ruth's observations about mental health and the establishments that purport to safeguard it are woven seamlessly into an engaging and original story.
Open Arms by Marina Endicott is also about mothers and daughters (and grandmothers). Bessie, 17-years-old, herself now pregnant, tries to come to terms with her relationship to her own mother, a willful, adventurous woman who avoids the ties that bind. By the end of the novel, Bessie succeeds in her endeavour but not before learning lots about both herself and her mother in the process. A warm, poignant story with finely written passages, but not particularly original.
The most notable feature of Linda Little's Strong Hollow is its cast of expertly and empathetically drawn characters. Jackson Bigney is a sensitive, artistic soul born into a rough backwoods community that respects little other than physical labour. Jackson is always an outcast, even within his own family. He is the quintessential loner, a condition exacerbated by the realization that he is gay. Little's portrayal of Jackson's inner being is pitch perfect, its tones as resonant as the tones of the violins Jackson so lovingly and meticulously creates.
Finally, there is Michael Crummey's River Thieves, a historical novel set in 19th century Newfoundland. Although the book is technically well crafted, I found it to be the most lacking of the six in "oomph." It didn't pack sufficient emotional punch for me. There is at times a "history lesson" feel to this book that I found off-putting and which got in the way of the characters, who have the potential to be very interesting but never quite get there.