The overall quality of the first novels I read was very good. I was happy to discover that I had never heard of any of the novels or novelists. It is troubling when a friend's work turns up for judging, or I encounter a book I have reviewed or for which I have done a jacket blurb. What did I look for as I read? First, a book that holds my interest. Fiction, no matter how profound or symbolic must entertain. If I find that I am day dreaming while I read, or if, after reading100 pages I ask myself, do I really have to continue reading this? Then I probably will not.
Here is how I narrowed the list of contenders: I read the first 25 pages of each of the many books submitted Some left me cold, but there were several I couldn't wait to continue. I then read to page 50 of every entry. At that point I set aside a few that I found boring or incoherent, or both. I also set aside a dozen or so I was anxious to finish. As time passed I discarded books at 75, 100, 125 pages, etc. Then I finished close to 20 novels looking for great writing and use of language, memorable characters, pace, surprises, the ability to make me laugh or cry, and the intelligence to make me say, Yes, I knew that but I never quite felt it before. A little advice to first time authors: you will probably live to write a second novel, therefore don't put all your epigraphs at the beginning of your first book. A little advice to publishers: get rid of those awful plastic covers on the quality paperbacks, the ones that once opened stay that way forever. The jacket covers were uniformly drab. Do we not have a Wendell Minor or Fred Marcellino in Canada, someone whose cover designs are beautiful, breathtaking and instantly recognizable? Jennifer Scott designed a lovely cover for Film Society, while a spectacular photo on the cover of Carnival, by Harold Rhenisch was undermined by a virtually unreadable typeface.
It was difficult to come up with a short list from so many fine contenders. I believe that 18 years ago when I won the First Novel Award they must have had a difficult time coming up with five books to fill the short list. This year there could have been double that many. Listed alphabetically by author are six additional books that could easily have been finalists: Jackrabbit Moon, by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos, Ronsdale Press; Choke Hold, by Todd Babiak, Turnstone Press (Winner of the Alberta First Novel Award); A Forest Burning, by Carole Giangrande, Cormorant Books; Liar, by Joanna Gosse, Breakwater; Shahnaz, by Hiro McIlwraith, Oolichan Books; and Film Society, by Gilaine E. Mitchell, Simon and Pierre Fiction.
Here are the finalists, alphabetically by author:
Finnie Walsh by Steven Galloway, Raincoast Books: Just as in Fifth Business, the play of two young boys causes a bizarre accident that has far reaching repercussions. Paul Woodward, the young narrator, born on the day Paul Henderson scored his historic goal against the Russians, has a family that would make Gilbert Grape's look normal. As the story of the short, tumultuous life of Finnie Walsh unfolds, there is a gory amputation, a cut throat, multiple missing prostheses, a disembodied left eye sitting in the middle of a leaf, Stanley Cup hockey and allusions to Moby Dick¨what could be more Canadian? By turns poignant and comic, gritty and surrealistic, the pace is frantic, the effect on readers long lasting. Of the hundreds of characters I encountered in dozens of novels, Sarah, Paul's mysterious little yellow sister who is able to see into the future, is the one who stays with me most
The Dominion of Wylie McFadden by Scott Gardiner, Random House: The most ambitious of the finalists; a massive amount of research went into this road novel. A little too much of the research finds its way into the story and tons of facts bog down the narrative on more than one occasion. McFadden, a fertility doctor stripped of his license because he used his own sperm to impregnate clients, first becomes an urban trapper, then sets off on a mission to Western Canada intent on committing one of the most reprehensible non-violent acts ever dreamed up by an author. Near Marathon, Ontario, he picks up a female hitchhiker is severe distress. She refuses to say where she is going or where she has been. As they cross Canada, McFadden tells his strange tale to the traumatized girl in hopes of learning her story. The girl is a very strong and sympathetic character; the same cannot be said of McFadden. The jacket copy suggests that in this novel David Lynch meets W. O. Mitchell, but though the Lynch analogy applies, the laughter and kindheartedness of W. O. Mitchell is missing. Though a scintillating read, there is a fine line between eccentric and creepy and Wylie McFadden too often crosses that line.
Alice, I Think by Susan Juby, Thistledown Press: The writing here is not as sophisticated as in some of the other finalists, but the novel is a dead-on, laugh-out-loud female coming of age story that is not about sex, drugs, and rock and roll (well, maybe a little fumbling, almost sex). Alice has an unerring eye for the absurdities of life. There is quite a bit of Alice in Wonderland here. The most memorable character is Death Lord Bob, the new high school counsellor, who is more dysfunctional and needy than any of his charges. Alice can be totally weird and completely normal at the same time, but her insights into the foibles of isolated small town Canadians are always hilarious. How did this miss out on the Leacock Award? The downside is that humorous novels seldom win prizes; judges, it seems, prefer tragedy to comedy.
This Place Called Absence by Lydia Kwa, Turnstone Press: Governor General's Award Winner Robert Kroetsch captures the essence of this sensuous and lyric novel when he says, "What she sees and writes¨what she voices¨is an utterly astonishing version of suffering, of enduring human bonds, of life's fragile triumphs." This is the story of a woman psychologist, an immigrant from Singapore, mourning the death of her father as she adjusts to her life in Vancouver. She struggles with her own love life while researching, through diaries, the lives of two Singapore prostitutes (au ku and Lee Ah Choi) of a hundred years ago. Beautifully written, hauntingly poetic, with a cast of memorable characters, this delicate tale deals with the fragility of life, love and family ties. The only downside is that explicit lesbian sex scenes might turn off some readers. If only this book could get the publicity of an Amy Tan novel it would shoot to the top of the best seller lists.
Necessary Lies by Eva Stachniak, Dundurn Press: In 1981 just as Poland is about to slip from the grasp of the Soviet Union, Anna, a Polish woman, comes to Canada to study at McGill University, leaving behind her husband and family and a life filled with hardship and political intrigue. Anna falls in love with William, a Canadian music professor, divorces her husband and stays in Canada. Ten years later when her new husband dies suddenly, Anna discovers a devastating secret that takes her back to Europe, less sure of herself, to confront her past life and Ursula, a German journalist with whom William had an affair for the duration of their marriage. Fine writing, clear descriptions, in a novel that deals with an immigrant's inescapable ties to country and family. The narrative is somewhat choppy at times, and some of the remembrances seem slightly forced. The story fades a little toward the end as a final bit of unexpected information is unearthed. ˛