At an announcement this morning in Toronto, four of the five jury members for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize unveiled what must by any measure qualify as one of the strongest shortlists in the 22-year history of the award. Culled from an already impressive longlist of a dozen books, the shortlist comprises two collections of short stories, one of them in translation; an apologue; a modernist novel about a sexual deviant in London; and a novel by a woman most readers and observers did not, prior to several weeks ago, even realize was Canadian.
This year’s shortlist in full:
- Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis (Coach House Books)
- Arvida by Samuel Archibald; Donald Winkler, trans. (Biblioasis)
- Outline by Rachel Cusk (Harper Perennial)
- Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins Canada)
- Martin John by Anakana Schofield (Biblioasis)
This will likely appear as a surprising group to people more used to traditional Giller shortlists packed with household names and buzz books. But this year’s jury – made up of Irish author John Boyne (who serves as jury chair), Canadian writers Alison Pick, Cecil Foster, and Alexander MacLeod, and British writer Helen Oyeyemi – signalled their willingness to deviate from tradition and predictability with a longlist that largely eschewed big names and familiar authors. The most established name on this year’s shortlist is Alexis, who has been consciously moving away from traditional approaches to his fiction at least since 2008’s Asylum. He was previously shortlisted for the Giller in 1998 for his novel, Childhood.
The only other person who has appeared previously is O’Neill, whose sophomore novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, was shortlisted in 2014, making her the first writer in the prize’s history to score a shortlist nomination in back-to-back years. Daydreams of Angels is an atypical CanLit story collection, a suite of fabulist tales featuring philosophical bears, angelic interlopers, and a mad Russian scientist who manages to clone Rudolph Nureyev.
Archibald, who, like O’Neill, lives in Montreal, won accolades for the French-language edition of his story collection; the English translation was one of three titles from Windsor, Ontario, press Biblioasis to appear on this year’s longlist. Schofield’s Martin John, a “footnote novel” to her 2012 debut, Malarky, tells the fractured tale of a mentally ill man who works as a building security guard in London and has an unfortunate habit of exposing himself to women in public. The third Biblioasis title on this year’s longlist – Russell Smith’s story collection, Confidence – did not make the final cut, but the author can console himself with the fact that he did find a place on the shortlist for this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
Fifteen Dogs, the second in a quincunx of novels, is the first book from Toronto small press Coach House to land a spot on a Giller shortlist. By contrast, the country’s biggest multinational, Penguin Random House Canada, scored four books on this year’s longlist, but was completely shut out of shortlist contention. And a final surprise is Cusk, who prior to the announcement of this year’s longlist was assumed by most readers to hail from the U.K. (Though she has lived most of her life overseas, she was born in Toronto.)
But then, this has been a year for surprises where Giller is concerned. Perhaps it is a result of expanding the jury to five people, allowing for a greater diversity of aesthetic sensibilities to factor into the deliberations. Or perhaps it is due to the presence of foreigners Boyne and Oyeyemi, writers who are not enmeshed in the CanLit scene, and therefore do not carry the same baggage or biases with them. Whatever the reason, this year’s jury has settled on a solid and unexpected group of titles. Though Boyne is quick to insist that the jury did not make a conscious effort to be unpredictable; they simply selected what they felt to be the best books of the 168 they read over the past year. And MacLeod adds that any argument or debate readers might engage in about the books that made the cut or were left out is a discussion the jurors have already had among themselves.
Nor was today’s excitement limited to the revelation of the shortlist. This year’s presentation, which was scheduled to happen in the Art Gallery of Ontario, was relocated at the last minute to the Bau-Xi Gallery across Dundas Street, due to concerns about a gas leak at the AGO. After the gathered crowds were ferried across the road to the new venue – which could reasonably be described as cozy – and presented with flutes of champagne that had been hastily carted from one spot to the other, host Rick Mercer took to the podium and announced, “The gas leak was called in by the Man Booker Prize.” All in all, it was an entirely appropriate grace note to the morning’s festivities.
The winner of the $100,000 prize will be announced at a gala ceremony in Toronto on Nov. 10.