The winner for 1997 is
Opium Dreams, by Margaret Gibson, published by McClelland & Stewart
The runners-up are (in alphabetical order):
Angel Falls, by Tim Wynveen (Key Porter)
The Blood Libel, by Allan Levine (Great Plains Fiction)
Elephant Winter, by Kim Echlin (Penguin)
Homer in Flight, by Rabindranath Maharaj (Goose Lane)
This year, the judges' judgements didn't tempt us into a tortuous process of figuring out who had really won. Two judges thought Margaret Gibson's Opium Dreams was the best of the five, the third thought it was the second-best.
In December, under the headline "The Only Skin She Was Given", we published an interview by Eva Tihanyi with Margaret Gibson, which was mostly about Opium Dreams. Here follows part of the introduction to the interview:
Margaret Gibson, born in 1948, grew up in Toronto. She received instant acclaim on the publication of her first collection of stories, The Butterfly Ward (1976). One of the stories from that collection, "Making It", was made into the movie Outrageous, starring Craig Russell. Another, "Ada", was made into a CBC-TV movie directed by Claude Jutra. The Butterfly Ward, which shared the 1976 Toronto Book Award with Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, was followed by four more short story collections: Considering Her Condition (1978), Sweet Poison (1993), The Fear Room (1996), and Desert Thirst (1997). The story of her custody battle for her son was the basis for the TV Movie For the Love of Aaron.
Frankly, I thought that I'd probably not have much trouble deciding which was the best book, but that fantasy was thoroughly dispelled by the time I'd read twenty pages of Kim Echlin's excellent Elephant Winter. It's an elegantly written, original, and poetic work, an amazingly good first effort. Yet I found it, if not exactly slight, not fleshed-out enough for my taste. Tim Wynveen's Angel Falls, a gothic (approaching the horror genre) coming-of-age novel is fully-fleshed, and is especially good on the musician's experience, but suffers from structural problems: the narrative urgency flags, and the final revelation comes too late, at least for this reader. Homer in Flight, by Rabindranath Maharaj, is notable for its occasional passages of deeply sensitive characterization, and especially for its moving and revealing truth-telling about the immigrant experience. However, I found Maharaj's protagonist lacked coherence of character, and his women were impenetrable-pun not intended-and unsympathetically written. Allan Levine's The Blood Libel, on one level a murder mystery, is cleanly and clearly written and replete-excessively so-with period detail, but ultimately unsatisfying because it lacks ambiguity, symbolism, that extra literary flair the gifted artist imparts without even being aware of it. But plenty of readers will enjoy this entertaining read, particularly if they have an interest in historical settings.
That leaves Margaret Gibson's Opium Dreams. It, too, is poetic, and demonstrates a high level of craft. If, in the novel's major flaw, the protagonist's rage at her family members seems to me ungenerous, Gibson redeems this by, at the end, pointing the way for her character to imagine forgiveness, perhaps even to find understanding. This novel is rich and full in its imagining, and has a clear sense of artistic purpose clearly rendered. For these reasons, I choose it as the winner.
Five intricate maps. A storied, exuberant gait through familial dysfunction (Angel Falls); a sojourn through a season where animals encircle the human heart (Elephant Winter); a journey through the human psyche at its most bare (Opium Dreams); immigration to a new country with its attendant minor calamities and modest, honourable, victories (Homer in Flight); a trek through time to unravel a murder mystery (The Blood Libel)-thrust together onto a short list, these five novels are remarkable for their diversity, ambition, and achievement.
Angel Falls, by Tim Wynveen, is a splendid example of the story-teller's art. From first memory to present times where he lives in a shack, Benoni Van Buskierke-Ben-populates his tale with a nutty mom, hapless dad, and a carnival of relations who hover between the dippy and the demented. Degradation, horror, sadness, and suicide are governed by strong narrative instincts, and Wynveen sees us through much anguish, leading to the death of Ben's mom, with agility. Angel Falls delivers a robust zeal for the large narrative in good measure.
A less traumatic death of the narrator's mother both saddens and strengthens Elephant Winter, by Kim Echlin. This is a novel that perpetually moves toward the epiphanic moment; it's moody and meditative at every turn, a canvas weighted by the slow strut of captive elephants in Ontario. The narrator, Sophie Walker, creates a lexicon of elephant speech while providing palliative care for her mother and having it on with the elephant-keeper. Of all the novels in this competition, the tincture of originality (the current fascination for horses and dinosaurs aside) glows most brightly in this book.
Opium Dreams, by the acclaimed short story writer Margaret Gibson, expands upon the life of Maggie Glass, a character who mirrors her author. She, too, is concerned with the death of a parent, Timothy Glass, following him through his final days in the grip of dementia and coma. Maggie will come to terms with the important divisive events in the life of father and daughter, but this is not a familiar tale. With a controlled, poetic touch, we are guided through wrenching experiences.
Homer in Flight, by Rabindranath Maharaj, another acclaimed author of short fiction, details with loving fondness the life of Homer as he leaves Trinidad to take on the suburbs of Toronto. Homer is always out of sync with his time and place, never quite grasping the subtleties of the world around him. The novel follows this wise fool's progress through initiation, hunting for work, working, losing work, courtship, marriage, the end of marriage-ever onward. A rich canvas of comical characters seasons the tale.
Winnipeg in 1911 is the primary setting for The Blood Libel, by Allan Levine, an historian who has published three books of non-fiction. The novel opens in Odessa, in 1883, and the key to unravelling the mystery of a young girl's murder in Winnipeg will also reside there. The title evolves from anti-Semitic stories which told of Jews committing abominations, in order to incite their persecution, and the great value of the book lies in its historic detail. The city of Winnipeg before the First World War, heavily populated with Russian immigrants, is admirably brought to stage as a rowdy burlesque.
While a fine read, awkwardness of phrase and dialogue, and a movieland interest in character, put The Blood Libel out of the running in this company. Homer in Flight is a faithful chronicle, often hilarious, but methodical where it ought to be inventive, and far too deliberate in its progress. Margaret Gibson is a writer of vexing grace, although she will have readers impatient with her poetic riffs. Elephant Winter deserves fans. I found the relationships too casual, people too easily come and go at the author's convenience. The book begins, "I am called the Elephant-Keeper, which suits me." It doesn't, not really, for Sophie is rarely alone on the page with the elephants, the bond veers to the academic rather than remaining personal. There's also trouble with Ben, in Angel Falls, who's far too passive to warrant being cast as the central figure. Whether acquiescing to sodomy or witnessing the torment of his loved ones, Ben never raises his pinkie to do something, anything. What he learns by book's end is undeserved and misses the point. Winding up as a hermit in a shack only perpetuates his passivity, notwithstanding Ben's final, wise meditation.
The most accomplished novel in this field, one that tears skin from the hide and heightens our appreciation of what living means, a novel that captivates and touches, that delivers a crunching dose of experience mixed with love and forgiveness and redemption, a novel that mystifies and chills and remains resonant long after it's read, a novel that is flat-out brilliant, is Opium Dreams, by Margaret Gibson. Hurrah.
Contests arbitrated by the taste of judges often bring about incongruous results even in figure skating, let alone in literature. Comparing books can be every bit as nonsensical as comparing apples and oranges. Literary contests often reveal more about the reading skills of the umpires than the writing skills of the competitors.
Perhaps contestants should never be ranked in events where a referee cannot stick a stopwatch on the participants. Still, the fact is that competitions are routinely held in human endeavours where performances are judged rather than measured, and results are weighed mainly by discernment. It is difficult to award literary prizes without ranking books, I suppose, but one should still keep in mind that writing is not a horse race.
Having unburdened myself of this caution, here is what my personal taste prompts me to say about the finalists.
I thought Allan Levine's heart is in the right place; I liked Tim Wynveen's humour and the cadence of his prose; it seemed to me that Kim Echlin is a gifted writer; and I have had occasion to appreciate the talent of Margaret Gibson before. Still, the book that worked for me best as a novel was Rabindranath Maharaj's Homer in Flight.
For me, a novel, as the word implies, should offer something new, whether in story, plot, milieu, or reflection, about the world and the people who live in it. Preferably it should do so in an idiom that sounds fresh and original for some reason. The universe explored by the writer may be internal rather than external; the writer may have some social or political agenda, and so on; but in the end the process of exploration in a novel should serve more than a therapeutic or a persuasive purpose. I think these criteria, when combined, are best met by Maharaj's work.
Ultimately a book (or any work of art) should offer a decent return on the reader's investment. It ought not to demand more-in terms of effort and concentration-than it returns in terms of insight, information, diversion, or magic. It seems to me that Homer in Flight is a decent value in this important sense. It demands less of the reader than it gives in return.
As a judge I was duty-bound to read all five books. I enjoyed and appreciated them all to varying degrees, but Homer in Flight is the one I might have finished reading even without an obligation to do so.
Sharon Butala lives and works on a ranch near Eastend, Saskatchewan. She is the author of five novels, two collections of short stories, and two books of essays-most recently, Coyote's Morning Cry.
Trevor Ferguson lives in Hudson Heights, Quebec. He is the author of six novels, most recently, The Fire Line. During the great ice storm, he quickly learned plumbing and electrician's skills, much to the benefit of his neighbours.
George Jonas lives in Toronto. As well as being a columnist, TV producer, motorcyclist, and airplane pilot, he is the author of one novel, two books of essays, two librettos, two true-crime books, and four books of poems, most recently, The East Wind Blows West.