Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing has won the 2009 Governor-General’s award for English language fiction — a major and stunning surprise. Told from the point of view of her servant, the book is the story of Lady Duff Cooper’s mid-nineteenth century retreat to Egypt to alleviate her consumption and how the household adapts there ( my full review is here). I said in my original review that I was surprised to see the novel shortlisted for the G-G and longlisted for the Giller — while it is very competently done, it is not the kind of book that wins literary competitions. As well, Pullinger, while Canadian-born and (I presume) still a citizen, has lived in London for almost a quarter century and the book has no Canadian content.
Juries for the G-G have a history of being contrarian. Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness (reviewed here) would seem to have been this year’s obvious choice (and would have been mine) — one can only assume the jury decided that the Man Booker International Prize was award enough for Munro this year. Given that the last two G-G winners were established Canadian “names” (Nino Ricci for The Origin of the Species in 2008 and Michael Ondaatje for Divisadero in 2007), one could understand a jury wanting to look for something less obvious.
Even then, one would have thought the jury would turn to Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean (reviewed here ) as its next choice. This first novel about Aristotle and the young Alexander the Great is the success story of this year’s Canadian season, making the shortlist for all three major prizes. Alas, like Rawi Hage’s Cockroach last year it is now on track to lose all three.
The other two finalists would also have been surprise winners. Deborah Willis’ Vanishing and Other Stories (reviewed here is a wonderful first collection of stories, but not up to comparison with Munro. And Michael Crummey’s Galore (reviewed by Shadow Giller juror Trevor Berrett here) seems a bit too regional and offbeat — although that is often a strength in G-G competitions.
None of those comments is meant to discourage anyone from reading The Mistress of Nothing. While both the subject and style mean it is not for everyone’s taste, it is well done and an enjoyable read. It is, however, a surprising winner in a competiton where the “literary” usually takes precedence over the “readable”.
While I only follow the English fiction award, there are actually 14 Governor-General literary awards, seven each for English and French-language work, in categories including poetry, drama, children’s and translation. You can see the full list here.