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Sunday, October 2, 2016

2016 Giller Prize Shortlist

I was at a cottage on an island in the St. Lawrence River for a week and didn’t have internet access so wasn’t able to post, until now, about the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist which was released last week. 

The six finalists are
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. 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?  Mona Awad simultaneously skewers the body image-obsessed culture that tells women they have no value outside their physical appearance, and delivers a tender and moving depiction of a lovably difficult young woman whose life is hijacked by her struggle to conform.

Yiddish for Pirates by Gary Barwin
Set in the years around 1492, Yiddish for Pirates recounts 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.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
A small village in 1850s rural Ireland is baffled by Anna O'Donnell's fast, which began as a self-inflicted and earnest expression of faith.  After weeks of subsisting only on what she calls "manna from heaven," the story of the "miracle" has reached a fever pitch.  Tourists flock in droves to the O'Donnell family's modest cabin hoping to witness, and an international journalist is sent to cover the sensational story. Enter Lib, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale who is hired to keep watch for two weeks and determine whether or not Anna is a fraud.  As Anna deteriorates, Lib finds herself responsible not just for the care of a child, but for getting to the root of why the child may actually be the victim of murder in slow motion.

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.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations--those who lived through Mao's Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989.  At the centre of this epic tale, as capacious and mysterious as life itself, are enigmatic Sparrow, a genius composer who wishes desperately to create music yet can find truth only in silence; his mother and aunt, Big Mother Knife and Swirl, survivors with captivating singing voices and an unbreakable bond; Sparrow's ethereal cousin Zhuli, daughter of Swirl and storyteller Wen the Dreamer, who as a child witnesses the denunciation of her parents and as a young woman becomes the target of denunciations herself; and headstrong, talented Kai, best friend of Sparrow and Zhuli, and a determinedly successful musician who is a virtuoso at masking his true self until the day he can hide no longer.  Here, too, is Kai's daughter, the ever-questioning mathematician Marie, who pieces together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking a fragile meaning in the layers of their collective story.

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
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?