North American cover
The Shadow Jury choice for the 2011 Giller Prize is:
The Free World, by David Bezmozgis
This insightful novel is centred on a family of Russian Jews, escaping (or being expelled) from Latvia in the Soviet Union circa 1978, just as Bezmozgis’s own family was. In the short term of the novel, however, the Krasnanskys are stuck in the virtual no-man’s land of unfriendly Rome and its outskirts while they await their final destination, be it Australia, the U.S. or Canada. And for at least a couple of them, that delay sparks some memories that bring the whole immigration strategy into question. It was the way that the author developed those conflicting stories and the characters in them that made this book our choice. We certainly had some debate and I want to recognize that here — Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues was high in all our rankings and first on Kimbofo’s chart. And we all observed in submitting our initial ranking of the shortlist that four or five of the titles would be quite acceptable to us.
Dreadful UK cover
In the final analysis, we opted for The Free World
on the strength of the exceptional quality of Bezmozgis’ prose as he tells his story — “on every page I was aware of what a strong writer he was, he never slipped” was juror Alison Gzowski’s observation. Trevor (he blogs at the Mookse and the Gripes
) and I both found the incisiveness of his prose impressive. He develops a full cast of characters in a most interesting situation and, while he does not succeed in bringing every one to a full life, he succeeds more often than he slips.
As for Half Blood Blues, it emerged as Kimbofo’s choice (she blogs at Reading Matters) and we would all have been happy to see it win — but we found what we thought was a better book. Here, in Kimbofo’s words, is what I think is a perfect summary of why some readers (perhaps the Real Giller Jury?) might find it better than The Free World: “I can’t help thinking that Half Blood Blues is a more risky endeavour, by which I mean the author has set herself some high aims: there’s the voice, the jazz thing and the Nazi thing. On top of this she’s fleshed out a cast of characters very well, thrown in an interesting plot and offered a complex structure. It’s by no means a perfect novel but its a brave attempt at one!”
Is the Shadow Jury chair covering his bets with this quote? Perhaps. Stay tuned for the Real Jury decision on Nov. 8.
If you check on the sidebar at right, you will find links to our reviews of all of the Giller shortlist (Kimbofo hasn’t posted her review of Half Blood Blues but it will be up soon and I will include a link).
We bloggers who follow prizes always whine about juries and their semi-secret — or totally secret — approaches. So, in the interests of transparency, here is how the Shadow Giller Jury evaluated the shortlist.
As Chair, I asked each juror (including myself) to rank the six books on the shortlist. As well, each juror was given 100 points to assign to the books to indicate how strongly she or he felt. That produced the following result:
Trevor – Bezmozgis 40, Ondaatje 30, Edugyan 15, Coady 15, deWitt 0, Gartner 0
Kimbofo – Edugyan 25, Gartner 20, Bezmozgis 18, Coady 15, deWitt 12, Ondaatje 10
Alison – Bezmozgis 22, Edugyan 19, deWitt 18, Coady 18, Ondaatje 16, Gartner 6
Kevin – Bezmozgis 28, Edugyan 22, Ondaatje 17, deWitt 15, Coady 13, Gartner 5
Totals – Bezmozgis 108, Edugyan 81, Ondaatje 73, Coady 61, deWitt 45, Gartner 31
We had an obvious favorite with The Free World and a fairly clear-cut second choice as well in Half Blood Blues. I would also note that the other four shortlisted books all drew significant votes — this is a strong, well-balanced shortlist with much to recommend every one of the six. (Trevor and I both would have ranked Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac ahead of Zsuzsi Gartner’s collection — if Blaise had been on the shortlist, I think our first round evaluation would have been even more tightly-packed.)
After that first evaluation, we asked Kim for a more detailed response regarding her favorite, had some online discussion and eventually came to the unanimous conclusion that Bezmozgis would be our choice — with a clear statement that all of these books have value.
Now, it is a matter of waiting until the Real Jury makes its decision. We know from experience that it will not be an easy choice.