Here is this year's shortlist for first novels published in 1998, with excerpts from Eva Tihanyi's reviews in the First Novels column. The shortlisted books deal exceptionally with a diversity of powerful issues: family, identity, abandonment, sexual abuse, AIDS, internment. Yet, interestingly, all the authors have elected to play them out within the topos of memory-personal and collective. The winner will be announced at a special reception on April 28th, and will be featured in the May issue of Books in Canada.
Childhood BY Andre Alexis (McClelland & Stewart)
Childhood is a quiet, contemplative novel in which the thirty-year-old narrator reflects back on his life, in particular his childhood and his most significant relationships. Abandoned by his mother at an early age, he spends several years in the care of his Trinidadian grandmother in a small Ontario town until his mother arrives back on the scene.
"It is the perfect pitch, demonstrated throughout, that makes Childhood such an outstanding novel. The lyricism doesn't sound forced or contrived; the narrator doesn't over-dramatize himself or those around him; and the plot is nothing less than life itself, the passing of time, the evolution of life into inevitable death. The result is a deeply moving narrative, not just about families and growing up but about the frustrating slipperiness of memory itself; just when you think you've mastered it, got your story straight and under control, you realize you've grown older, your perspective has changed, and once again things look disconcertingly different" (September 1998).
The Handless Maiden BY Loranne Brown (Doubleday)
Mariah moves with her family into her grandfather Lucas's large house in Thunder Bay. The house holds secrets, including the one of Lucas's sexual abuse of Mariah, which begins when she is eight and continues for nine years. At that point, Mariah takes matters into her own hands: as he is on the point of attacking her yet again, she pulls a gun on him, and in the ensuing scuffle, ends up shooting her own hand off.
"Unnerving as a honed razor, The Handless Maiden is a fiercely beautiful book, a chronicle of a harrowing journey from childhood to adulthood. It is not without flaws...but they pale in comparison to its greatest strength: Mariah Standhoffer. Brown has created a fascinating character, so intense, psychologically astute, articulate, and insightful that the sheer force of her personality compels you to keep reading-and you're not likely to forget her once you close the book" (October 1998).
Kiss of the Fur Queen BY Tomson Highway (Doubleday)
This is a semi-autobiographical tale about two Cree brothers and the Trickster who watches over them. The brothers are sent away at a very young age to a residential school in Winnipeg, where they are given biblical names, forbidden to speak Cree, and sexually abused by a priest. The major theme then is the damage inflicted by representatives of organized religion on the Native spirit, particularly of those Native children who were wards of Catholic-run residential schools.
"The book seduces with magic and legend: from the opening chapter, we are drawn into a world at once ordinary and extraordinary... It is Highway's passionate blending of his personal family mythology with the larger Cree mythology from which it stems that makes the novel so successful. He shifts back and forth between the Cree world and the alien world in which the brothers find themselves-a traumatic transition from a world of nature, poetry, and myth to one of urban linearity, commercialism, `standard' education, and racism. However, Kiss of the Fur Queen is no political treatise. Instead, it is a celebration of a Cree family, a language, a way of being in the world-all of which persist despite the odds" (November/December 1998).
Beneath That Starry Place BY Terry Jordan (HarperCollins)
Beneath That Starry Place is a novel of self-examination in which the narrator, in order to understand his childhood, realizes he must first examine the lives and personalities of his parents and grandparents.
"What Jordan has created is no ordinary generational saga. It is a non-linear exploration of family and the surprises of identity wherein past, present, and future continually intersect... The writing itself is lyrical in its spareness, brimming with subtlety and implication. Each character is rendered with delicate accuracy. The shimmering line between memory and fact is drawn by a writer with a keen eye for the shifting shades of gray" (November/December 1998).
The Electrical Field BY Kerri Sakamoto (Knopf)
The Electrical Field is set in 1975, and is narrated by a Japanese Canadian woman. The novel, whose plot is predicated upon a murder mystery, is an exploration of the psychological residue of the internment experience that Japanese Canadians underwent during the Second World War.
"This is an exceptional novel by an exceptional writer. Sakamoto goes beyond a condemnation of historical events. What she has written is an intense, psychologically complex novel that startles us with its uncanny insight into the relationship between the private self and its environment, both physical and political" (Summer 1998).