2011 Official Giller Prize shortlist


Here’s the Official Giller Prize shortlist, with links to reviews already posted from Shadow Giller jurors:

The Free World, by David Bezmozgis. KfC’s review here. Trevor’s review here.

The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady. KfC’s review here.

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. Kimbofo’s review here, Trevor’s review here, KfC’s review here.

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan. KfC review here.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, by Zsuzsi Gartner. Trevor’s review here. KfC review here.

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje. Kimbofo’s review here, KfC’s review here.

There is no doubt that it is strong list — the 17 book longlist gave the Real Jurors lots of options. If I had an early observation, it would be that the shortlist is strangely “conventional” given some of the more experimental works on the longlist. Both Booker short-listed novels (deWitt and Edugyan) also make the Giller shortlist and Ondaatje was probably the “best known” name on the longlist. More adventuresome works, such as Dany Laferriere’s The Return and Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac, have fallen by the wayside.

If you read on into the Shadow Jury’s shortlist thoughts below, you will find that we opted for some of the riskier works — our split from the Real Jury is not a criticism, just different tastes. We did mention three of the six, although two of those mentions came from the Booker shortlisting. Whatever — if you are looking for some very good reads that are not on the Giller shortlist, try some of the other novels that impressed us.

At least one Shadow Juror has managed to review each of the shortlisted titles and the three of us who blog will now set ourselves down to reviewing all six, so please stay tuned. Alison will contribute through comments and guest posts, whichever she finds most appropriate. I personally only have one to go (Better Living Through Plastic Explosives) but I will be posting excerpts from Kimbofo and Trevor’s review when they go up. And please join us by commenting on the various reviews as you work your own way through the shortlist — it promises to be an enjoyable reading experience.


With 17 books on the longlist and only four weeks between longlist and shortlist, there is no way that the Shadow Giller Jury can read enough of the books to put together an “official Shadow shortlist”. But…between the four of us, at least one juror has read each of the 17 titles and while we haven’t posted reviews on all of them (we’ll get to that, I promise), we do have some thoughts.

So, with the Official Jury shortlist due tomorrow morning, here are some “shortlist worthy” titles in the opinion of the four Shadow jurors. Click on the title for a link to the full review from that juror — the sidebar at the right has links to all the reviews we have posted.

From Kimbofo at Reading Matters (Kim is in London, so has faced some access issues — we will get all the shortlist to her): I really feel that at this stage I can only nominate one — and that is Alexi Zentner’s Touch. As a debut novel, I thought it was exceptionally well written — evocative, atmospheric and magical are words that first come to mind — and, despite a complicated structure in which past and present storylines were interleaved, it was an effortless and entertaining read. It embraced some big themes — faith, survival, loss — all set in the Canadian wilderness, and yet the narrator’s voice was personal and accessible, as if he’d invited you to sit round the fire with him while he told stories about his family’s history.

I may add The Free World to my selection, but until I finish it, I’m not sure how I really feel about the book.

From Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes: My two choices from the five I read — and I really hope each makes it — are Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden and Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac. The Beggar’s Garden is a series of disparate short stories set in the rough neighborhood of Vancouver where characters struggle with drug addiction, poverty, or just sheer loneliness. In each case, their mind is unclear, but the prose is exact as Christie gives us an unsentimental but touching glimpse at their lives.

As skillfully rendered are the linked stories in The Meagre Tarmac which build, line-upon-line, to an illuminating look at the emptiness at the center of the lives of the very successfull — beyond their wildest dreams successful — immigrants from South Asia. At the same time the story builds to a great overarching theme, Blaise lingers on the intimate moments when his characters are vulnerable and completely recognizable.

From Alison Gzowski: The Free World by David Bezmozgis, is a novel I look forward to rereading as it packed a dense punch; he so ably depicts a world and also worlds within worlds, that there is nothing to suggest he is a debut novelist. It’s an intelligent, moving and accomplished work.

From KfC: A Good Man completes Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Western trilogy in outstanding fashion (and you don’t have to read the first two before reading this one). Set in the Cypress Hills Country of Canada and northern Montana just weeks after the Battle of Little Big Horn, it explores the tensions, challenges and deprivations of the “invading” European settlers in a compelling, readable “epic”.

I’m not normally a fan of memoirs or poetry so my inclusion of The Return by Dany Laferriere as “shortlist worthy” is significant. Part memoir, part introspective personal history, part ode to a father he never knew, Laferriere’s combination of free verse and conventional narrative chronicles his return to the Haiti he left 33 years earlier — and a search for the life story of the recently-deceased father whom he had not seen for more than half a century.

The Giller shortlist is normally five titles — so there are six that we find worthy of the shortlist. Perceptive visitors here will note that two Booker-shortlisted novels (Half Blood Blues and The Sisters Brothers) did not make the Shadow jurors’ selections. Both are good books and it would be no surprise to see either or even both on the shortlist tomorrow — the fact that they are not included in the six favorites cited here is an indication of just how strong this year’s Giller longlist is. Not every one of the 17 books is great, but most are — and the jury has done an excellent job of finding well-written novels and short story collections that span a wide variety of “types”. They will have a difficult time picking the final five.


18 Responses to “2011 Official Giller Prize shortlist”

  1. Shelley Says:

    Hmm. Seems to me, based on what you write here, that you’d be a “natural” for liking poetry!


  2. Kerry Says:

    I am still most intrigued by The Sisters Brothers, even though I am not sure why. You guys have indicated it is a fun read, and, I suppose, that appeals to me at the moment.

    You’ve got The Return pulling at my sleeve now too. And I still haven’t read Barnes. I am behind on 2011 fiction. Way behind.


  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: Here’s my hypothesis (and only that) about how some of these choices got made at the Real Jury level.

    1. We’ve got two “Westerns” — Vanderhaeghe and deWitt — so let’s make the choice at this level. deWitt becomes the choice, I suspect because all three real jurors are authors and he took on a bigger writing challenge.

    2. We’ve got three short story collections, so let’s only advance the “best” — Blaise and Christie fall by the wayside and Gartner moves ahead. I’d say Trevor disagrees with that choice — I’ve only read the Blaise, so can’t comment (although I sure liked it).

    3. We’ve got four “immigrant experience” books (Laferriere, Blaise, Ondaatje, Bezmozgis) — they liked The Free World best.

    4. We’ve got a slew of historical novels (Holdstock, Endicott, Dey, Zentner, Ondaatje, Vanderhaghe, Johnson, Edugyan) and have to advance at least one. They chose Ondaatje and Edugyan — I’d put both Zentner and Vanderhaeghe ahead on my chart.

    5. And we’ve got three “edgy” novels built around character (Mayr, Gunn, Coady). I’ve only read the Coady and while my review was not super enthusiastic it is one of those novels whose best scenes are growing in memory while the less impressive ones are fading (usually a sign that the book was better than I first thought).

    Obviously, some books fit in more than one category, but I think this was the kind of sorting system that was in place and I cannot fault it. It is a prize judging version of running heats in Olympic track races. The longlist is so strong that some mechanism for getting down to six (which is one more than usual) was required. An advantage of this approach — and the resulting shortlist — is that it preserves the wide variety of styles, narrative approach and story that so impressed me with the longlist.

    Do keep an eye out for The Return when it is released in the United States — it is not just a very different book, it is a very impressive one. And The Sisters Brothers is a most enjoyable read.


  4. dovegreyreader Says:

    Really pleased to see Michael Ondaatje on the shortlist!


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: For me, The Cat’s Table is a better novel than his last two. But it still would not have made my personal shortlist — probably more a reflection of my desire to give some lesser known names a shot at the Prize than a comment on the book itself.


  6. David Says:

    DeWitt and Edugyan seem to be being shortlisted for every prize going at the moment (I wonder if they’ll make an appearance on the GG shortlist too?) yet still I can’t muster up any interest in reading either. The DeWitt I’ve started and abandoned twice. The rest of the shortlist looks very enticing though. I have the Bezmozgis and the Ondaatje to look forward to and am currently reading the Coady. I have a few of the longlist that I want to read too – Vanderhaeghe, Johnston and Holdstock. I’ve read the first four stories of the Blaise and though they’re very well written, they didn’t really grab me – I will come back to them though.


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: While I wish the jury had taken a few more chances with the shortlist, I do think it is a good one. John Barber of the Globe has a very good take on it here with the emphasis on newish, younger writers — Ondaatje’s presence is a fragile link with the past. Giller shortlists in recent years have pointed to a changing of the guard in the A list of Canadian authors — this year’s list would seem to indicate that it is virtually complete. And the new “guard” has a lot more people in it.

    Please keep coming back with your thoughts as you get to the Giller books. While I know some who are lukewarm on the deWitt, I think you are the only one I know who couldn’t finish it.


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    The shortlist for the Governor-General’s literary awards was announced Oct. 10 and tends to confirm the Shadow Jury’s opinion when we listed our “shortlist worthies”.

    Edugyan and deWitt complete their Canadian shortlist trifecta by being included — they are joined by Bezmozgis (an Alison pick that is also a KfC favorite), Zentner (a Kimbofo pick which I endorse) and Marina Endicott (my review will be up tomorrow).

    Trevor’s two picks (Blaise and Christie) have already been shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust Award, joining Edugyan, deWitt and Dan Vyleta for The Quiet Twin (the only shortlisted book that has not been reviewed here).

    Taken together, I would say the three shortlists indicate that 2011 is an exceptional year for Canadian fiction (the Globe story notes that Ondaatje’s publisher did not submit The Cat’s Table — I am guessing that Alice Munro’s generous gesture of leaving awards open for non-established writers is being repeated here). And for those who are following the Giller on this blog, I would again say that it is worth looking beyond the shortlist to the longlist — there is some excellent reading that did not make the Giller shortlist.


  9. David Says:

    I’m looking forward to your review of the Endicott, Kevin. It seems to have had a mixed reception in the Canadian press – of the reviews I’ve read a couple praised it highly, one was lukewarm, and the Winnipeg Review absolutely slated it. But, as it has made the Giller longlist and now the GG shortlist it clearly has something to recommend it. I ordered a copy yesterday (along with Martha Schabas’s ‘Various Positions’, Gayla Reid’s ‘Come From Afar’ and DW Wilson’s ‘Once You Break a Knuckle’).

    I completely agree with your assertion that it has been an exceptional year for Canadian fiction – just among the Canadian novels I’ve read this year that *haven’t* made the big prize lists, I’ve found some of my favourite books of 2011 (‘Alone in the Classroom’, ‘Natural Order’, ‘Glass Boys’) and have a pile of novels that I’m eager to get to (Boyagoda, Itani, Vanderhaeghe, Holdstock, Johnston, Price, Toews, Bezmozgis, Greenslade, Ondaatje, Pepper-Smith, Bolen). I think I could quite happily read only Canadian fiction for the rest of the year!


  10. RickP Says:

    A couple of days ago we were talking about A Fine Balance being Kevin’s favourite book. I mentioned while it’s not my favourite, it’s certainly high on my list.

    Kevin asked what my favourite was and I haven’t been able to locate the thread of the discussion so I’ll answer here.

    I feel like I wanted to name a work of great importance. In the end I am very siusceptible to emotions evoked through reading and still hold the greatest affection for John Irving’s trio of The World According to Garp, A Prayer For Owen Meany and Cider House Rules. I can’t really choose between the three.


  11. RickP Says:

    A Prayer For Owen Meany still has my favourite opening sentence.

    I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

    Sorry to hijacjk the hthread but I wanted to answer Kevin’s question.


  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: I remember the question but don’t remember the thread either. Mrs. KfC is going to love your answer — she just re-read Hotel New Hampshire and it reminded her how much she liked that era of John Irving so the three you mention are on her agenda. I like all four of those as well. Alas, Irving and I parted company after Cider House Rules — I didn’t even try his most recent one.


  13. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    John Irving just gets in to your head, doesnt he? I can’t get over “Sorrow floats”. I plan to re-read his major works this winter. I love him!


  14. Iqbal Says:

    I just love A Fine Balance, one my all time favourite novels


  15. Helene Robb Says:

    I have just recently discovered KFC, and am enjoying reading the reviews and comments. I was delighted to read that Kevin’s favourite book is ”A Fine Balance, ” as it is mine as well.

    I’ve pointed out to prospective readers of the book that one will find the meaning of life in this novel and that this is picked up intuitively – there are no didactic sermons, just the relationships (or lack thereof) of the characters, and those relationships tell all.

    Helene Robb


  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome to the blog, Helene — and I am delighted that we share the same favorite book. Your comments are most welcome.


  17. RickP Says:

    So far, I’ve completed 4 of the 6 shortlisted works and am on the 5th. It’s a strong list. Thus far, I’ve read Half Blood Blues, Sisters Brothers, The Antagonist and The Free World. I’d be relatively happy if any of them won. The Antagonist is the one that struck my emotions the most and that is my sentimental pick. I’m not thrilled with Plastic Explosives so far but it’s early.

    The list is stronger than the Booker list though I don’t think any of them rises to the level of The Sense of an Ending.

    I am impressed with the Giller judges.


  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: Without giving away too much of the Shadow Jury’s deliberations which are now under way (stay tuned for Friday), I think I can say the four of us agree with your assessment. The Giller shortlist does not have an obvious standout (as The Sense of an Ending was in the Booker) but it has a very strong list overall — as Trevor noted when he submitted his initial ranking to me yesterday, he gave his top four picks four stars out of five when he reviewed them. I am in much the same boat.

    And I would note that the longlist contains some equally good titles that did not make the shortlist — Blaise, Vanderhaeghe and Laferriere would all have been worthy in my opinion. So I would say not only an impressive performance by the Giller jury, but a very impressive year for Canadian fiction. I know the Giller winner always attracts attention — this year, the entire longlist is worthy of consideration for interested readers.


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