We are pleased to announce six finalists-at first, five were planned. But to avoid a painful choice at this preliminary stage, we asked the three judges to read one more.
The winner will be announced in the May issue.
This award is easy to apply for. Indeed, no application is needed, only a review copy. Eva Tihanyi, our first novels columnist (and a poet who is glad not to have to review her fellow-poets), reads first novels as they reach her in the course of the year. Here is a case where "synergy" means something: it is convenient for the critic to be the shortlister. She does not have to read several dozen first novels in the first few weeks of the new year; it is easier to be just and generous, when not rushed and pressed.
Speaking of generosity, we are delighted that Chapters Inc. has chosen to continue its sponsorship, after the merger of the former sponsor, SmithBooks, with Coles.
We also praise for their liberality-with their time and discernment-this year's judges. They are David Helwig, novelist, poet, and critic, now of Montreal, Gayla Reid, short-story writer and a Journey Prize winner, of Vancouver, and Charles Lillard, critic, of Victoria.
Who then are the six finalists? And even more to the point, what are their books?
Let us answer by reprinting (in alphabetical order by author's name) Eva Tihanyi's reviews.
(From September 1995.)
The life of a West Coast stripper depicted in Diana Atkinson's Highways and Dancehalls (Knopf, 235 pages, $25 cloth) is, despite the book's mundane title, intriguing. Atkinson chronicles a two-year period in the life of Sarah (stage name: Tabitha), daughter of an English professor and victim of a callous medical profession that injured her both emotionally and physically. Throughout her childhood, Sarah suffered from colitis, eventually cured by surgery that left her stomach scarred. She starts stripping at seventeen not only because she is "a lousy waitress" but because she seeks from others the approval she cannot give herself. She needs to feel she has "something they want."
Although the black light in the bars renders the blemish on her stomach invisible, Sarah still thinks of herself as a "scarred geek", continually trying to affirm her own reality and find value in it:
"I look in the mirror and am reassured. Plausible. I look the part. I just keep running my fingertips over my chin and throat and the silky undersides of my breasts. Mapping out the territory. I am real and I am still here."
The issue of exploitation as conventionally associated with strippers doesn't enter into the picture for Sarah. When a patron's girlfriend asks her if she feels exploited, Sarah answers with a blunt no: "I don't see it. I figure I'm the exploiter. I mean, look at these guys. . I'm exploiting the fact that they think with their balls." Yet when the girlfriend says she doesn't buy it, asks Sarah how Sarah can "choose to participate in this system," Sarah yells, "Because I'm fucked up!" and runs from the room to curl up on the bathroom floor.
Atkinson's empathy for Sarah is contagious. It's hard not to respond to such a strange anomaly: an intellectual stripper who makes reference to Colette, Death of a Salesman, pre-Christian matriarchal culture, and doppelgangers, to name but a few of the topics on which her thoughts alight. At the same time, the danger, loneliness, boredom, and obsession with appearances that are an integral part of the stripper's life are also acutely filtered through Sarah's perception. Her witty turns of phrase and self-deprecating, down-to-earth humour are delightful. Who can resist the mind of a woman who compares her mother's whining to "a possessed vacuum cleaner preparing to levitate and fly out the window" or describes a matron's hair as "a scrambled nest of peroxide"? Or who admires a bartender's motorcycle, then ruefully remarks to herself: "Too bad there isn't some way you can ditch the guy and fuck the bike. I must be tired."
Through Sarah, Atkinson gives voice to strippers as a group-not in a "cause of the day" sense, but as human beings with souls as well as bodies. Anyone who reads this book will find it difficult afterward to view strippers in any lesser way.
(From February 1996.)
Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony (Douglas & McIntyre, 240 pages, $10.95 paper) is about growing up in Vancouver's early Chinatown. The book, which began as a much anthologized short story almost twenty years ago, is divided into three sections, each narrated by a different child from the same family: Jook-Liang, the "useless" female, whose main interests are going to movies, tap dancing, and imitating Shirley Temple; the adopted orphan Jung-Sum, the second oldest brother, who discovers he's gay; and Sek-Lung, the youngest brother and the only one in the family born in Canada.
Choy does a fine job of orchestrating the narrative voices and showing how family patterns and themes operate in diverse, often unpredictable ways, in the individuals' lives. Within the three main stories, the stories of other characters are also embedded, and this is where Choy truly excels. His "secondary" characters are not secondary at all. The most notable of these is Poh-Poh, the grandmother, who lives with the family. She believes in the "old ways"; hers is a world of ghosts and omens, of ancient lore and mysterious remedies. One of her favourite pastimes is making wind-chimes, the materials for which she and Sek-Lung (who considers her his "spiritual playmate") find in the neighbourhood trash bins. The family often feels embarrassed by the "Old One", but their superstition is as strong as their embarrassment: they take her views into account far more than they would like.
Choy sets his characters' personal stories against a background of political upheaval (the Depression, the Second World War, the Japanese invasion of China) and illustrates vividly the clash of the old culture with the new that most immigrants experience. As Sek-Lung notes, "What would white people in Vancouver think of us? We were Canadians now, Chinese-Canadians, a hyphenated reality that our parents could never accept." Choy's account of this reality is lyrical and moving.
(From November 1995.)
Every once in a while, a book comes along that astonishes the reader with the sheer enormity of its scope. Keath Fraser's Popular Anatomy (Porcupine's Quill, 584 pages, $24.95 paper) is such a book.
Fraser, whose last published volume was the award-winning story collection Foreign Affairs (1985), has spent the last decade creating what is in some respects really three novels in one, a literary triptych where each part is separate yet connected to form a larger "picture". The novel as a whole spans three hundred years of imagined time (back to 1886 and forward to 2091) but is set primarily in a four-year period in early-eighties Vancouver. Inflation is running rampant, and computers are on the verge of running everything. The "modernness" of the modern world is everywhere evident. By focusing on the lives of a few particular people as they operate in this time frame, Fraser gives us a microcosm that reveals much about the larger reality in which it exists. His formidable intellect, his grasp of culture, history, and the human spirit, infuse the book at every turn, and the result is a virtuoso performance.
Book One, aptly titled "Against Nature", is the story of Dwight Irving, owner of Herodotus Travel and husband of Reesa Potts, a TV personality. Dwight is a somewhat unusual travel agent: he hates to travel, feels that "real travel is more artificial than anything he could dream up at home." When his wife drags him on a holiday to Hawaii, he spends most of it criticizing the phoniness of the travel industry, dismissing, for example, the exclusive Hyatt Regency as "a disgusting simulation of Paradise." He's an armchair tourist turned entrepreneur, a man who "would never think of sending anyone anywhere unless he had thoroughly imagined their destination."
Book Two, "The Life of a Tuxedo", is the story (in the first person) of Dwight's streetsmart foster-charge, a punk rock orphan from Bombay. Aloysius is an exploiter and a manipulator immersed in an illegal refugee operation that nearly lands him in jail. He's a clever sham with big ambitions, a Canadian appropriation of the American Dream gone awry.
Book Three, "Bones", is narrated by Bartlett Day, a doctor of chiropractic and housemate of the Irvings. Bartlett sees his profession as fraudulent and, by extension, himself as a fraud. He wants to abandon his profession but can see no way out, especially because of his financial circumstances. These become worse and worse because of the assistance he gives Dwight when his friend's heavily leveraged business falters. Bartlett, like Dwight and Aloysius, is caught in the trap of his own life and doesn't see a way out.
Obviously, Popular Anatomy is far too complex and densely layered to be summarized. It is a demanding book, one that rewards a slow reading. My only criticism is that at times it is unwieldy and might have benefited from more stringent editing. This, however, is a minor point and in no way diminishes the magnitude of Fraser's achievement.
(From February 1996.)
No beating around the bush on this one: When Fox is a Thousand (Press Gang, 256 pages, $16.95 paper) by the twenty-eight-year-old Larissa Lai is a remarkable debut. It is a magical book, rich with poetry and folklore, and elements of fairy-tale. In it, three narrative voices and their attendant cultures are interwoven: a fox growing toward wisdom and her thousandth birthday, the ninth-century Chinese poetess Yu Hsuan-Chi, and the oddly named Artemis, a young Asian-American woman living in contemporary Vancouver. Lai moves with a sure hand from one to the other throughout the novel. She seems as comfortable in the world of Chinese mythology as she does in the west coast Canada of the nineties, with its underlying tensions: its racism, homophobia, and general ennui.
It is a Chinese myth that when foxes reach the age of fifty, they acquire the power to transform into women. As they grow older, they become more powerful. And when they reach a thousand, they are "in communication with Heaven." If the fox is the voice of spiritual evolution, Yu Hsuan-Chi is the voice of history, as Artemis is of how history repeats itself. (Her life parallels Yu Hsuan-Chi's in a number of disconcerting ways.) The struggle of Artemis and her friends to come to terms with their Chinese heritage, their sexuality, and their relationships with one another, forms the backbone of the story, but Lai's main concern is not so much with events as with how they affect human beings. Her potent imagination and considerable verbal skill result in a tale that continues to haunt long after the book is closed.
(Also from February 1996.)
Yan Li, in Daughters of the Red Land (Sister Vision, 320 pages, $10.95 paper), also weaves together three lives: that of Laolao, her daughter Qin, and Qin's daughter Peace, who now lives in Canada and narrates the story. Laolao is a product of pre-Mao China, a culture that bound women's feet and "prized illiteracy as a womanly virtue."
Qin is seventeen when the Communists take over. She is a smart, precocious, beautiful, and very headstrong girl, resentful of the way Chinese society has treated women. She thinks Communism means emancipation and equality, and embraces it wholeheartedly, although her mother Laolao is forced to turn over her entire fortune to the regime, leaving the family poverty-stricken. The new government believes in "prohibiting bigamy and wife abuse, transforming prostitutes into industry workers, and encouraging women to study and work." This suits Qin perfectly. After finishing university, she goes to work at the Beijing headquarters of the air force and marries a well-respected fellow-officer. All goes well for her until her husband is accused of plotting against the government, is abruptly jailed, and is stripped of all his honours. He has become-as Qin, pregnant with Peace, quickly recognizes-a liability to her and her unborn daughter.
Yan Li treats history as much more than a backdrop: history is the story. It affects the characters directly and profoundly; it is not something to write about but to write from within. Her style is straightforward: she tells a compelling, often very moving story, putting a human face on disturbing abstract issues. This is a political novel in the deepest, most admirable sense: it exposes and condemns violence and hypocrisy by allowing us into the lives of those affected. It doesn't just tell; it shows. And not in a simplistic black-and-white way, either. As in life, moral lines are often blurred, and there is often no clearcut right or wrong choice. It is this recognition of complexity, combined with a firm grasp of Chinese history, that enables Li to document the reign of Mao with such eloquent passion.
(From September 1995.)
Maggie, the primary focus in Charles Long's superb Undefended Border (Warwick Publishing, 337 pages, $14.95 paper), is appealing and credible. She is a wonderful creation: a young, independent woman with a throaty laugh, a quick mind that relishes puns, a restless nature, and an unnerving propensity to question everything.
It is 1969 when Maggie travels from Toronto to Eagle Bluff, Ohio, to research a book about the Underground Railway. Eliza from Uncle Tom's Cabin escaped across the frozen Ohio River near Eagle Bluff, a detail which is the town's only "claim to fame".
The story opens on the bluffs above town where Maggie meets David, a college drop-out whose mother is founder and sole minister of American Holiness, a "sort of Baptist" local sect. He is immediately drawn to Maggie and offers to help her find a place to stay. They become lovers, and the novel centres on how their relationship unfolds. However, Long intersperses his main narrative with frequent lengthy flashbacks-to Maggie's childhood in late '50s Rockport, Ontario (a town which was literally wiped out by the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1957) and to David's childhood in the Eagle Bluff of the same period.
These flashbacks show the roots of the adults Maggie and David have become. Their personalities are evident in their early lives: her rebelliousness, acute sense of irony, and blatantly asserted sense of self; his law-abiding, mild-mannered, naive charm. As the book's title suggests, Long is concerned with the idea of borders: geographical, cultural, personal; between childhood and adulthood, men and women, parents and children, Americans and Canadians, blacks and whites, believers and non-believers. The book reverberates with the complexity of life, of Maggie's and David's struggle to cross the lines.