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First Novel Award
by Joan Givner

Andre Alexis
Loranne Brown
Tomson Highway
Terry Jordan
Kerri Sakamoto

This year's winner for novels appearing in 1998 is Childhood by André Alexis, published by McClelland & Stewart.

The runners-up, in alphabetical order, are:

l The Handless Maiden,

by Loranne Brown (Doubleday)

l Kiss of the Fur Queen,

by Tomson Highway (Doubleday)

l Beneath That Starry Place,

by Terry Jordan (HarperCollins)

l The Electrical Field,

by Kerri Sakamoto (Knopf)

This year, the evaluations of the three judges did draw us into a slightly torturous process of deciding which of the fine books shortlisted for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award was the indisputable winner. Two judges thought André Alexis' Childhood was the best of the five; the third considered it the third-best. In the end, it did decisively edge out its closest, and much admired, competitor.

André Alexis was born in Trinidad in 1957 and grew up in Ottawa, which is the setting for his first, and critically acclaimed, collection of short stories, Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa (1994). The book was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize, Canada and Caribbean region. Alexis has written for radio and for the theatre; his plays include Lambton, Kent, & Other Vistas (1996) and Hunger (1993). He regularly reviews international fiction for The Globe and Mail, is contributing editor for This Magazine, and has been playwright-in-residence at the Canadian Stage Company.

In April 1998, we published an interview with Alexis conducted by Branko Gorjup. Here is one fragment in which the author discusses Childhood: "`What you see here really isn't me, only one of many versions of myself'-this is one of the engines that drives the narrative, one of the ideas that makes Thomas [the novel's protagonist] nervous. I agree that all versions of the self are provisional, time-based, and evanescent, but all of those versions are also true, however briefly. And, in the end, it's the search for a clear perspective, for those flashes of understanding, that I find really moving. It's important that Thomas should fail to answer the question, `Who am I?' That's a question that can only really be answered at the end of a life, when there's no more change, when there are no more perspectives. But `Who am I?' is also one of the most noble questions. To ask it deeply is to risk everything and, insofar as Thomas asks it deeply, I kind of admire him..."

Here are the evaluations of the three judges:


André Alexis' Childhood is a deserving winner of the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award.

In a way, it is a very typical first novel-a novel of growing up, of coming of age which at times reads like a memoir and does not have the structural soundness that the later novels of good writers have. But it finds a way to transcend the limitations of the memoir-type first novel.

On my first reading, I was reminded of Julian Barnes's Metroland and Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers, which succeed, in part at least, because they parody the conventions of the Bildungsroman and thereby hope to escape them-the idea being not so much to fool readers as to disarm them by entertainingly sending up these conventions, while at the same time inevitably adhering to them.

On my second reading of Childhood, I realized what on first reading had seemed so unlikely-namely, that its strength lay, not in its attempts to subvert or escape literary traditions, but in its flawed mastery of them.

Childhood's footnotes, graphs, and illustrations are not what set it apart from less successful novels of its type. In fact, I would say that the book succeeds in spite of these somewhat tired post-modern departures from and interruptions of the narrative. Childhood has a compelling narrative, powerfully drawn characters, and the kind of charm that wins over readers.

It is also, word for word, sentence for sentence, extremely well-written. André Alexis understands that content and style are inseparable. I think that if he settles for this one post-modernist tenet which has stood the test of time, and puts aside the others which have not, he will become an even better writer.

There are unforgettable scenes in Childhood that are intended to move the reader in the same way that Tolstoy's novels do.

In my favourite, the narrator, Thomas, is fooled by his mother, Katarina, into a shoplifting spree. What he doesn't know is that she has told the gullible shopkeeper that she wants to teach her son a lesson, that he is about to try to steal some things, and she wants him to be caught. The shopkeeper is so busy watching Thomas, he does not notice Katarina cramming her purse and jacket with food. When the shopkeeper confronts Thomas, Katarina puts a final flourish on the charade by slapping her mystified son's face. Later, Thomas, in tears, cannot understand why his mother would have used him in this way. It is a moving scene-one of many in the novel.

Katarina, Thomas's grandmother Edna, Mr. Metcaf, and Henry Wing are all strongly drawn, memorable characters.

Thomas's childhood with them, and the power of the language in which that childhood is related, convinced me that, in this year's first novel competition, Childhood was the winner. 

Wayne Johnston is the author of several novels, including The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, The Divine Ryans (winner of the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award), and The Story of Bobby O'Malley, which won the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award for 1985. He was born and raised in Newfoundland, and now lives in Toronto.


André Alexis' novel, Childhood, is a stunner. I found the intelligence, range, unpredictability, and control-both technical and emotional-of his work so compelling that it had to be my choice for the best first novel of 1998. Yet it wasn't an easy matter to come to this decision.

Kerri Sakamoto's The Electrical Field is not only a tour de force in its creation of character and treatment of historical context, but a profoundly moving text in its portrayal of the interconnections of love and pain. The beauty and intricacy of Terry Jordan's prose in Beneath That Starry Sky are remarkable. And the sheer brio of Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen deserves applause.

What convinced me to choose Childhood above these other novels was Alexis' extraordinary play of mind, his delight in things "rich and strange", and his gift for sewing heart-stopping truths into the plain-seeming cloth of his prose-truths he tells "slant", such as this one: "I don't know if one ever forgives oneself for what others have done to you."

Structurally, this novel, with its graphs, footnotes, tables, lists, and maps, gives us new ways of perceiving love and memory, time and change. But the novel is much, much more than a bag of metafictive tricks: its author demonstrates an astonishing maturity of vision concerning "the mystery of human behaviour". Like his narrator, Thomas, we do not, even after finishing the novel, know quite what to make of the intertangled lives of its characters, but we do know that these lives are of intense and abiding concern to us. Alexis, like his marvellous creation, Henry, knows that "such mysteries as could be resolved [are] trivial; those that could not, essential. It wasn't his nature to dispel mystery, but he could lead [us] to it."

And he does-unforgettably and superbly! 

Janice Kulyk Keefer is the author of many books, including the novels, Constellations, Rest Harrow, and The Green Library, a critical work on Canadian Maritime fiction, Under Eastern Eyes, and, most recently, a family memoir, Honey and Ashes (HarperFlamingo), and a book of poetry, Marrying the Sea (Brick Books). She was born and currently resides in Ontario.


André Alexis' novel, Childhood, is a delicately sensitive and elegiac approach to childhood pains and losses, and to the evocative power of memory.

Alexis deftly weaves together two threads: Tom McMillan's account of the incidents of his early life, and his struggle to impose shape and meaning upon those incidents. That is, Alexis places the narrative of Tom's childhood within the frame of his struggle with the narrative itself. Neither strand dominates; nor do the meditations on the difficulty of his task detract from the drama of the life-story. Both work together to form a reflexive pattern of echoes and repetitions.

"I've been writing for months now," Tom says at one point, and despairs about how little of himself has made it onto the page. He thumbs his nose at the motto, "Know thyself", wondering how he can do so when he knows so little of his parents. "Besides," he adds, "who I am is a function of when I am, and when I am is only a near fact, as evanescent as breath on a window pane."

Parenthood is the main subject of his contemplation. He is raised in a small Ontario town by a grandmother who has rejected her Trinidadian origins for the world of Lampman and Dickens. When she dies, he is reclaimed by the mother who abandoned him at birth. They find temporary refuge in the house of Henry Wing, whose connection with the mother remains mysterious: Protector? Lover? Father of her child? Wing, the most memorable of the lively cast of characters, is a Dickensian caricature. Transplanted from Trinidad to Ottawa, he has metamorphosed into an eccentric nineteenth-century aristocrat: he lives in a Victorian mansion equipped with a vast library and laboratory in which he conducts his esoteric researches. Tom says of him, "I am, I think, Henry's son, whoever fathered me."

The meaning of that statement and the links between the surrogate father and son are part of the complex texture of the book. Wing's home, his reinvention of himself, and his struggles to impose order on a body of chaotic information, all mirror and caricature Tom's efforts to reassemble his past and know himself.

Tom tries to categorize segments of his past under various section headings: History, Geography, Sciences. He weighs concrete facts against memories and dreams. He makes lists of questions, of daily tasks, of important events, and inserts maps and diagrams. Like Wing (like Derrida), he understands that information relegated to footnotes often contains keys to the main text. Accordingly, he places in footnotes such information as the oral storytelling of minor characters. By the end, many unsolved mysteries remain, yet there are no forced solutions or answers. The reader is not frustrated, but rather is drawn into collusion with the narrator's speculations, as fascinated as he is by the intricacy of the process.

In spite of my admiration for Childhood, it was edged out in my estimation by Kerri Sakamoto's The Electrical Field, which was much more ambitious in its scope. Rooted in that dark episode of Canadian history-namely, the internment of Japanese-Canadians-it tells the story of a group of characters years later and far removed from their place of incarceration. They try to reestablish their lives, only to find themselves doomed by the incurable wounds of that earlier time. While this powerful novel is tragic, haunting, lyrical, and beautifully written, it still manages to have the suspense of a thriller. And finally, praise should go to Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen: the fine writing, lively characters, exploration of major themes-such as racism in all its manifestations and its relation to artistic expression, the creation and power of myth-demonstrate that Highway is a very inventive, robust, and vigorous talent. 

Joan Givner is the author of two literary biographies (Katherine Anne Porter: A Life and Mazo de la Roche: The Hidden Life) and an autobiography, The Self-Portrait of a Literary Biographer. She has written four collections of short stories and her latest book is a mixed collection of fiction and non-fiction, entitled Thirty-Four Ways of Looking at Jane Eyre (New Star Books). She lives on Vancouver Island.


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