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First Novel Award
The winner for 1995 is Keath Fraser's Popular Anatomy,
published by The Porcupine's Quill.
The runners-up are:
Diana Atkinson's Highways and Dancehalls (Knopf Canada)
Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony (Douglas & McIntyre)
Larissa Lai's When Fox is a Thousand (Press Gang)
Yan Li's Daughters of the Red Land (Sister Vision)
Charles Long's Undefended Borders (Warwick)

It was not easy to come to a result this year. We had asked the judges to rank the six books in numerical order, but also to assess them by percentage, to give an idea of the comparative weightings that lay behind the rankings.
"If the percentages give a different result from the simple rankings," I said to them, "then I will consult with you all, and we will try and work out a result that reflects your true sense of these books-consensus, if possible, but not necessarily consensus."
The upshot was a bit like a parlour game.
Keath Fraser's Popular Anatomy was the first choice of two judges. But because it came in low from a third judge (as you will read below), on a percentage basis it was well behind Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony, which was the second choice of all three. The spreads of the percentages ranged considerably, making it doubtful whether they offered a more refined comparison.
At the end of the day, it was for us at Books in Canada to interpret and apply our own rules, without passing our own judgement. No-one was obdurate, so the compromise choice was open to us. But then, through their comments here, the judges would all have a chance to express their views. It seemed better to go by the majority, to present a frankly split decision.
Popular Anatomy is clearly a book that draws strong responses.
Interestingly, David Helwig and Gayla Reid had very similar rankings (though the range of their percentages was very different). Yet they are of different generations and one lives in Montreal (formerly in Kingston, Toronto, Hamilton, and Niagara-on-the-Lake), the other in Vancouver. They do not know each other. Charles Lillard, the writer of the dissenting opinion, lives in Victoria.
This suggests (at least to an unreconstructed Torontonian like me) that there is more in common between Montreal and Vancouver than between Vancouver Island and Vancouver. However that may be, various people have remarked that five out of six of these books are to some degree British Columbian, and that three are by Canadians of Chinese origin or ancestry-the shortlist having been composed by a poet with an apparently Hungarian name who lives in the Niagara Peninsula.
Our thanks to the judges and to our colleagues at Chapters, and our praise to all the authors.


David Helwig:

Popular Anatomy is a remarkable book. For me, it had to be chosen first, if only because of its size-which doesn't mean its length, of course. It is remarkable both for its wit and range. The myth of travel, the losses of emigration, the mysteries of healing, the power of the future: these are all themes that are central to the sensibility of our time, and they are explored with great inventiveness and sophistication in a novel that is at the same time a love letter to the city of Vancouver. It has its flaws, perhaps. The strongest part of the book is the central section, and the whole thing may wind down a bit toward the end. How it will stand up to a second reading, what one will think of it in five years, these are open questions, but it is an ambitious and powerful book.
The Jade Peony is a solidly accomplished book, less ambitious, but imaginative and sharply written. It captures the sense of the claustrophobia and almost mythological intensity of its Chinese community, catches reflections of the other country and the other times. It is the reflection of a humane but astute sensibility. The structure is simple and episodic, but there is a poetic unity to it.
Highways and Dancehalls creates a world that most of us will see only at a distance. The constant precision of its detail, the observant eye of its narrator, these make the book shocking without any sense that it is forced or hyped. It succeeds most powerfully as a portrait of a world, and I, at least, had some difficulty in knowing how to react to the narrator. With her cleverness, her journal-keeping, her odd medical background, she is a very specific figure, and it's not easy to know just how to take her. In an autobiography, the reader would know that the facts were there just because they happened. A novel can't work that way. The book is consistently interesting, but oddly unfinished.
Undefended Borders is a good novel of real charm and perhaps limited ambitions. The characters are likeable, the places carefully imagined, and it is nicely written. It made me laugh out loud. It is finally a very intelligent entertainment, a kindly, even loving book, satisfying but staying in the calm water close to shore.
When Fox is a Thousand is perhaps the opposite, a book with high ambitions that can't quite reach the level of its aspiration. It's like a juggling trick with a great many coloured balls and clubs. There is no denying the brightness of the things flying around and one can delight in that, but they don't all stay in the air. The three narrative voices don't seem altogether complementary, and the interweaving of the three never succeeds in providing moments of dramatic enlightenment. They all sound much the same. The characters in the book's present-day narrative are not strongly defined or differentiated, and are not of a lot of interest.
Daughters of the Red Land is a fascinating book and very good at its best. Its portrait of the lives of women in China over a long period of time is vivid and convincing and often very moving. It is a fine piece of historical writing. However, the Canadian sections are stiff, perhaps a little naive, and while the writing is often very impressive, especially for someone who is working in a second language, there are bits of awkwardness and errors of idiom.

Charles Lillard:

Undefended Borders is a book that I will re-read and one that I am already recommending to friends. Unlike the other books in this contest, Borders does not depend on locale for its effect. The story could have taken place anywhere in North America, but not at any time. The juxtapositioning of Canadian and American views adds depth and weight to the compelling relationships in the book. In short: this novel's sum is larger than its parts and this is something that cannot be said about the other novels under consideration.
Borders is fine entertainment, but that's not all. The novel is the work of a writer coming into his own. It is well-written and witty, better yet, it is intelligent. Undefended Borders never falters, and David and Maggie and the rest of the cast are real people wrapped up in their own realities and believable situations. As a reader I am fascinated-and as a writer I find myself reading certain pages a second and third time. The author is an uncommon craftsman. Admittedly, to some extent these situations may be engaging for me because I also am a veteran of the 1960s, but I think not. Long's writing is so precise, and the book's structure so neatly crafted that, to me, my slice-of-life associations are just an added delight-rather similar to my family's photo albums of L.A. in the 1920s and 1930s, which add a further dimension to my reading of Raymond Chandler. Borders is a novel that has nothing to do with CanLit and everything to do with what people read.
What I have said about Borders, I can almost repeat for Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony. The differences between these two books are locale and characterization. One of the finest touches in this novel is its depiction of Vancouver's Chinatown, but, remove this atmosphere, and the story must depend on the characterization of the narrators. Now, in Borders, Dave and Maggie have a totality that makes one want to know them better, and while Jook-Liang and the others in Peony are hardly one-dimensional, I can't think of a reason to renew my acquaintance. They are static characters, children and adults caught in a few moments of time, while those in Borders are moving through time, theirs, ours-and that nameless space-time where all lively fictional characters live on, no matter what we may think of them.
When Fox is a Thousand and Daughters of the Red Land are both works of considerable merit, but on second reading I am convinced neither can be compared to Undefended Borders or The Jade Peony. Li and Lai are too wordy, and neither writer has digested her material. Both books cry out for editorial control. Page after page of Daughters of the Red Land is fascinating (and, I imagine, autobiographical), but I'm not engaged: the fascination is due to my knowing so little about contemporary China. And after I'm past these pages, I realize how little they have to do with the story Li's telling.
When Fox is a Thousand is very much a first book: the author parades her knowledge and while it's all interesting, it's largely art for art's sake; I remain unconvinced that it is all necessary. Too much of the fine writing hides flaws-take for instance Fox's last paragraph on page 187. Surely a thousand-year-old creature is beyond this sort of high-school-like ruminations? After all, the fox of folklore and myth is a first cousin to crow, raven, and coyote, a trickster figure.
Nonetheless, both books are intriguing: there is a lot of honest talent and potential hidden away in the first-growth prose. I am looking forward to the next novels these authors write.
At first, Keath Fraser's Popular Anatomy appears to be full of promising ideas and characters, but nothing, and no-one, go anywhere. Fraser reminds me of the young cook who put all the ingredients for a stew in the pot and then left the room, having forgotten to turn on the stove. I have seen some reviews that praise this book but the praise says more about the reviewers' reading habits than it does about Fraser's ability to pull all the disengaged pieces of his novel together. Like all but the very best science fiction or prophetic fiction, Popular Anatomy is boring-there is no vision, no real imagination, and certainly damn little science. Even his stylistic and novelistic tricks are predictable: when you run out of inspiration and perspiration, pull another trick out of the desk drawer. As a result, the book reads more like one of those nearly forgotten experimental novels of the 1970s than something written on the doorstep of the twenty-first century. Diana Atkinson's Highways and Dancehalls is a piece of mildly pornographic sentimentality. But neither pornography nor sentimentality is a valid emotion; at best they only suggest emotions. This is bad enough, but there is worse to come. We are supposed to believe this is a diary kept by a young stripper. As a diary it is intelligent, vivid, and well-written. Okay, but are we to believe, as the author wants us to, that someone this bright, and so full of savvy, is unable to find any work other than stripping in some of the lowest-class joints in North America? Nothing in her background suggests that she is without options-being a bad waitress hardly means that stripping is all that's left. This kind of logic requires more of a leap of faith than I'm willing to give Highways and Dancehalls. And would anyone as bright as Tabitha find the joints and characters this fascinating? Far from being about "sex and survival", the story is a variation on the whores-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché. And it's too bad, because the author writes well, but she is too young, perhaps, to write convincingly about a side of life that is sordid, stupefied, and dull.

Gayla Reid:

Judging can be quite a slippery exercise. Shorten an already brief list of finalists. Then compare a lyric novel with a comic novel: the one succinct and clean and sweet, the other complex and dense, at once slapstick and metaphysical. An apple, an orange. Go ahead and choose.
First, the shortlist. My short shortlist is (alphabetically) Atkinson, Choy, Fraser, and Lai. Atkinson writes about stripping as a job that pays somewhat better than waitressing. I haven't counted how many times a stripper strips in this book, but it happens a lot: the woman works while the audience-mostly men-watch with varying degrees of enthusiasm and boredom. Atkinson manages to deliver all of these scenes without having the reader feel that the same thing happened a few pages before.
Not surprisingly, most of the plot development goes on outside working hours. And here Atkinson takes on one of the most unfashionable diseases imaginable-ulcerative colitis-and makes it lively reading. I found it easy to see why this book was a finalist. It's nervy and takes risks.
When Fox is a Thousand is likewise fresh and nervy, told in three voices: a fifteenth-century Chinese poet; a young lesbian, Artemis Wong, from Vancouver's East Side; and the Fox herself. The thousand-year-old Fox is a canny canine observer with magic powers, who moves between China and North America, linking the past with the present, Chinese scholarship with feminist politics, and introducing us to the parallels between the fifteenth-century poet and Artemis. What stays with me about this book isn't the poet or Artemis Wong, so much as the conceit of the Fox, and the way in which Lai is able to use it to bring together her disparate worlds.
The Jade Peony is another novel of three voices, this time all of them children. There's an array of superb moments: Only Sister's farewell to Monkey Man; Second Brother's fight with Frank Yuen, triggering the first glimmerings of his own sexuality; Third Brother's tale of tensions between Chinese and Japanese in Vancouver during the edgy months before Pearl Harbour.
Throughout, I found that an omniscient narrator stood very close behind the voices of the children. The narrator has a lot of telling to do. He explains, for example, the different Chinatown dialects and what it means when a character shifts from one dialect to another. In all of this, Choy has a lovely light touch. There is something tremendously appealing about this novel's narrative voice; it feels gentle and completely kindhearted.
The Jade Peony is one of those happy books that gives pleasure in the instant of reading. In my judging exercise, it became one of my final top two choices. The other is Popular Anatomy. While The Jade Peony seems to me very much a book of the moment, opening cultural doors we want opened, Popular Anatomy is similar in spirit to those big fat novels of the 1970s.
Fraser was recently quoted as saying that his loyal readership could fit into the back of a Honda Accord. With this novel, he may need to upgrade this image to feature a more roomy vehicle. Popular Anatomy is a grand, erudite, complex, passionate, cerebral, multi-layered, rewarding book.
Fraser does not settle for the reliable appeal of the villain. Instead, he takes his risks with the ordinary, the banal. The prattling Dwight, a Vancouver travel consultant who goes nowhere, is also an ironic image of narrator as creator. The exuberant Aloysius, with his adolescent idioms and egregious spelling, is that classic everyman, the little guy on the make. And the discontented Bartlett Day is for a comic novel a surprisingly sober character, obsessed with victims everywhere.
For me, the key to the success of Popular Anatomy is the way the jokes go on working. Jokes are everywhere, from numerous one-liners to the book's three-in-one structure of father, son, and chiropractor.
Fraser's jokes begin as gags that turn into the novel's most serious themes. And the more you think about them, the better they work. For example, when Dwight finally does take a journey, he visits San Francisco. There, this lapsed Catholic plans an act of blasphemy with the consecrated host, only to discover that the cathedral he has wandered into is Episcopalian. Fraser leads us through Dwight's foiled expectations with deadly accurate timing. What starts here as a joke about the disappearing body later becomes a central theme, as the skin sloughs away and we get down to the bones, and beyond. By the end, almost everything is transmuted. As we approach the conclusion to this very long, complicated journey, the reader feels, in the final pages, that it has all been extremely simple indeed.
So what to do? Choose the lyrical Jade Peony, or the comic Popular Anatomy? At the end of the day, I chose Popular Anatomy for its depth and breadth. Here is a novel that goes for broke. The writer opens his arms as wide as he can and embraces the entire planet.


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