The winner for 1996 is Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels, published by McClelland & Stewart
The runners-up are:
Cereus Blooms at Night, by Shani Mootoo (Press Gang)
The Cure for Death by Lightning, by Gail Anderson-Dargatz (Knopf Canada)
Fall on Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald (Knopf Canada)
In Another Place, Not Here, by Dionne Brand (Knopf Canada)
Self, by Yann Martel (Knopf Canada)
Three different novels placed first with the three judges, as you may gather from their comments. But we didn't just rely on numerical rankings, there was also a scheme of percentages, to allow for more weighting in the assessments. In turn that let us look at the percentages from different angles, to adjust for different judging styles. One judge asked if there had been an adjustment for the rainfall in Iceland; there was not.
Fugitive Pieces came out ahead, from each of these vantage-points. But there was a divergence for second place: either Fall on Your Knees or Cereus Blooms at Night. Considering the attention that Anne Michaels and Ann-Marie MacDonald have received (and their prominence in other genres), the writer that the judges' comments here are likely to bring to more readers' notice-at any rate to mine-is Shani Mootoo.-G.O.
1996 was clearly the year that first-time novelists confidently and deservedly seized a good part of the critical attention. The term "promising" barely applies to the titles on this list. Although quite different in style and approach, the two most remarkable novels, Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces and Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees are so equal in power and vividness that it is close to impossible to weigh the two on purely objective grounds.
In reading, between the two I developed a preference for Fall on Your Knees, because Ann-Marie MacDonald's astute handling of a tragic theme puts it outside the ironic perspective of most contemporary fiction. Fall on Your Knees in fact is a grand-scale novel in the Faulkner-Hardy tradition. In a night of Job-like catastrophe, an ostracized family in Cape Breton nearly self-destructs. The family spends the next decades lying to each other about the disaster and, in the confusion, they inevitably repeat elements of it. The two main characters, the sisters Kathleen and Frances, appear to be white and black, with Frances as a diabolical parody of Kathleen. Just when Kathleen looks too pure, MacDonald turns her inside out to show that she too possessed a rebellious, sensual side which explains her crucial role in the family's disaster. The serpent in the Garden of Eden is over-reaching ambition, often artistic, which can never seem to be balanced with basic physical desire, emotional spiritedness, and its seemingly inevitable consequence in women, pregnancy. MacDonald is so skilful at narrative and character development and telling detail that whenever one set of situations and characters become exhausted, she invents wholly new ones that not only fit in quite logically, they serve to revive the established characters. As a result, the novel stays fresh through most of its epic length.
The Holocaust has provided the three main characters of Fugitive Pieces a nearly complete ground zero. With families destroyed in Europe, the characters must recreate life and a kind of tough enduring love in Toronto through memory and instinct. Although melancholy, they are not bitter or severely traumatized. All three male characters-Athos, Jakob, and Ben-are polymaths obsessed with revealing the positive aspects of existence through the methodology of science: geology, geography, archaeology, even meteorology. While this interest is close to compulsiveness, modern science really becomes, as it does to any real scientist, an alchemy that reveals tranquillity and meaning at the core of the soul. Like Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels is skilful in integrating prose poetry into ordinary narrative. Michaels offers us quite stunning images which reinforce the narrative: the Jewish boy who regularly hides from the Germans in a sea chest and comes out of it a little less each time.
Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night is a novel of surprising strength. Although written with macabre elements redolent of Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily", Mootoo manages her material with freshness, clarity, and interest. At the centre is a deranged woman called Mala who lives in a jungle-invaded house in an isolated corner of a Caribbean island. Despite her evident repulsiveness, Mala appears to be an almost wordless earth goddess with "an aroma resembling rich vegetable compost." Mala is the pivot point for a whole set of interlinked characters. Mootoo keeps up suspense by failing to reveal until towards the end the real reason for this devotion.
I wanted to like Gail Anderson-Dargatz's The Cure for Death by Lightning more, but I was distracted by her determined overuse of southern gothic male stereotypes. They are all here: the deranged incestuous father, the exhibitionistic town idiot, and the dangerous skulking hermit of the woods. Because most of them seem to want to ravage the central character, an appealing fifteen-year-old called Beth, there is an artificial Perils of Pauline atmosphere to the novel which distracts from Anderson-Dargatz's quiet exploration of female life, exemplified in part by Beth's mother's oddball recipes and folk remedies.
At the start of Yann Martel's Self is an interesting portrait of a young boy confused by questions of gender, sex, and basic physical functions. Although these questions are normal for young children, they remain obsessive and reach a point where the character Self, no longer a child, wakes up a woman. It's not too clear whether this is purely a narrative gimmick or a device to expand the exploration of sexuality. Martel offers little help. He consistently shies away from analysis and alternates descriptions of sexual encounter with accounts of mundane experience including university studies, writing, and travel. If the point is that Self is confused inside his selfhood, it is not one that powerfully sustains narrative.
Dionne Brand has taken too many stylistic risks in In Another Place, Not Here. Although she appears to want to deal with some serious identity themes in her novel-sexuality, race, and politics inside the context of troubled Caribbean culture-Brand seems to want to exclude the reader. She in fact starts off with two different techniques of nearly complementary opacity: soliloquy in Caribbean dialect and a muddy stream-of-consciousness narrative. She later adds other confessional material in Black Power rhetoric which is primarily coded for the faithful. Because the style so often serves to veil crucial narrative elements, the thought occurred that Brand's characters want to remain hidden. As a result, the novel becomes a seashell with its pattern concealed inside.
John Ayre is the author of Northrop Frye: A Biography.
Cereus Blooms at Night, by Shani Mootoo, captivates the reader's attention by blending traditional well-crafted story-telling with vivid descriptions of lush landscapes.
The first-person narrative introduces us to Tyler, whose original and appealing voice guides us through a world rich with strangeness. It is inhabited by a group of eccentric characters whose bizarre adventures are often at odds with the strictures of the colonial society they inhabit. The story of how these lives become desperately intertwined and are brought to a point of violent confrontation through a series of dramatic, if not melodramatic, events, is told with a high degree of suspenseful teasing which keeps the pages turning.
The theme of sexual ambiguity, prevalent in a few of the shortlisted novels, is treated here with charm and humour.
In Another Place, Not Here, by Dionne Brand, takes us on a disturbing journey into the inner consciousness of two women, Elizete and Verlia, who try to escape, in different ways, the harsh Caribbean society into which they were born.
Elizete, condemned to a life of near-slavery as a labourer in the sugar-cane fields, escapes her condition through flights of fantasy. Verlia, born into more fortunate circumstances, cannot abide the perpetual pessimism and grieving that characterize her early environment. At seventeen, she escapes to Canada and channels her anger into the revolutionary politics of the Black Power movement. The two women meet when Verlia returns to the island to participate in a doomed revolutionary coup. Their encounter and the ensuing love affair propel Elizete from her dream-like state into the harsh realities of an illegal immigrant's life.
The lyrical evocations of their tropical island contrast starkly with descriptions of Toronto, as alien to the two women as a lunar landscape.
The book reads more like a prose poem than a novel and the writing, while powerful, can be opaque at times.
Anne Michaels's background in poetry is evident both in the language and style of Fugitive Pieces; as in Brand's work, the reader is often left with an impression of reading a carefully wrought, luxuriant prose poem. The book is similarly divided into two parts, narrated by two distinct voices. The first section of each part is entitled "The Drowned City", and the stories they tell vividly convey the malevolent shadow cast by the Holocaust on survivors and their children.
In the first, we meet Jakob, orphaned by the war at the age of seven, and rescued by a heroic Greek geologist named Athos, who is working on the excavation of an ancient city in Poland. Jakob and his protector survive the war on a Greek island and later move to Toronto. Raised under Athos's learned and loving tutelage, Jakob grows up to become a renowned poet. The second story concerns Ben, the child of Holocaust survivors for whom the war will never end. Ben grows up in a silent Toronto household, haunted by guilt, the ghosts of his dead siblings, and his parents' unrelieved anguish. Both men find solace in love and poetry.
Each narrative frequently pauses for impressive displays of erudition in-to name a few of the subjects-geography, geology, meteorology, totems, explorers, carbon dating, and poetry. Throughout, the writing is ambitious, ornate, and accomplished.
Yann Martel's Self covers familiar ground-the coming-of-age story, but it does so with a new twist. The book has both a hero and a heroine and they are one and the same person. Although the author never explains the circumstances of his protagonist's miraculous sex change, the device permits him to explore adolescent yearning and erotic pleasure both from the male and female perspectives. Detailed descriptions of teenaged angst alternate with travel accounts of journeys undertaken by his hero/heroine.
The precocious narrator is no Holden Caulfield, but he does offer at times a charming and amusing take on the confusions of growing up a few generations after Salinger's hero.
The Cure for Death by Lightning, by Gail Anderson-Dargatz, is a Faulkneresque depiction of rural life during World War II in remote Turtle Valley, B.C. The story is told through the eyes of its young heroine, the fifteen-year-old Beth Weeks. Like Faulkner, the author blends lyricism with symbolic revelation to portray a time and a place peopled by a group of eccentric characters whose uneasy cohabitation animates the narrative. The presence of ghosts, strange deformities, bizarre occurrences, and frequent brutality creates a stern Canadian gothic landscape, alleviated by tender, lyric evocations of nature's graces. The use of recipes, including the one that gives the book its title, offering instructions on cooking, gardening, fruit-picking, and preserving, proves to be a particularly nice touch.
Fall on Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald, is a vast family saga recounted in entertaining fashion and filled with a variety of sensational dramatic events-rape, murder, incest, infanticide, suicide, racial strife, etc.-designed to keep the reader engrossed. Covering nearly half a century, a variety of locations ranging from Cape Breton Island to the streets of New York, and an impressive cast of characters, the novel is well researched, well constructed, and highly professional.
Ann Charney is the author of Dobryd and Defiance in Their Eyes.
Surely 1996 will be remembered as a great year for first novels. I would be happy to see the prize go to any one of my first four choices: Michaels, Mootoo, MacDonald, or Anderson-Dargatz.
Fugitive Pieces, a strikingly fresh post-Holocaust novel by Anne Michaels, encompasses an array of complementary opposites: institutionalized horror and private solace, poetic prose and vivid narrative, the Old World and the New, solemn grieving and lively wit. Much of it is played out against an expertly drawn picture of Toronto in the 1950s and 1960s, from Hurricane Hazel to the ravines, described as the city's "rooms of green sunlight." Rich, dense, and unforgettable, Fugitive Pieces is as impressive as any first novel in years-and, more astonishing still, as good as the international reputation it has quickly built.
Cereus Blooms at Night is dazzling, too, in entirely different ways. On a mythical island, Shani Mootoo creates or discovers a dense, local, and unique Asian-Caribbean world of buried secrets and desperate memories, a hothouse in which stories grow as lushly as the flowers. Two of the book's triumphs are worth mentioning: the creation of the narrator, a sexually ambiguous young male nurse of great charm, Tyler; and the handling of movement backward and forward in time, so dextrous and self-assured that we might imagine this is the author's fifth book.
Fall on Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald, is an audacious, hugely ambitious, multi-generational saga that brings half a dozen superb characters to life and makes Cape Breton in the first half of this century into a God-haunted setting of wonder and horror. The final section is a remarkable coup, a small masterwork of erotic writing. Perhaps the chapters leading up to that all-explaining resolution aren't as sustained and compelling as earlier sections; but that's a minor complaint.
Elements of magic realism show up in both Mootoo and MacDonald, but they make their most prominent (and triumphant) appearance in The Cure for Death by Lightning, by Gail Anderson-Dargatz. That wonderfully evocative piece of work mixes the ordinary miseries of adolescence with interior-of-B.C. Native demons and spells, in a story that, for all its complications and mysteries, never for a moment loses its narrative drive.
Robert Fulford's most recent book is Accidental City.