Sarah Bernstein, Eleanor Catton, Kevin Chong, Dionne Irving and CS Richardson are the five writers vying for the 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
The $100,000 award annually recognizes the best in Canadian fiction.
Three of the shortlisted writers live outside Canada, giving this year’s shortlist an international flavour.
Catton, a Canadian-born New Zealand writer, is shortlisted for her novel Birnam Wood. Bernstein, author of Study for Obedience was born in Montreal and currently lives in Scotland, while Irving, author of The Islands, is from Toronto and currently lives in Indiana.
All of the finalists are making their first appearance on the Giller shortlist. However, Richardson previously made the longlist in 2012, for his novel The Emperor of Paris.
The announcement was hosted and livestreamed at an event in Toronto by Commotion host Elamin Abdelmahmoud.
Canadian poet and fiction writer Ian Williams is chairing the five-person jury this year. Joining him are Canadian authors Sharon Bala, Brian Thomas Isaac and international authors Rebecca Makkai and Neel Mukherjee. Publishers submitted 145 titles for consideration, which was narrowed down to a 12-title longlist before the reveal of the five-book shortlist.
Williams told CBC Books that this year’s shortlist is “invested in the messiness of the world.”
“They don’t go for a simple, two-dimensional backdrop world where the characters kind of shine on top of this flattened set. They really try to flesh out the background as well,” he said.
Bala noted that the five titles are all examples of “excellence in craft” and are at a higher level of grappling with complexity of ideas.”
“All five are deeply intelligent books and you can feel they’re coming from brains that are really firing,” she said.
This year the prize celebrates its 30th anniversary. The winner will be announced on Nov. 13, 2023.
Rick Mercer returns to host the broadcast for the fourth time. He previously hosted in 2014, 2015 and 2019.
Mercer rose to fame starring on CBC’s long-running series This Hour Has 22 Minutes. He was also the host of The Rick Mercer Report for 15 seasons. His newest project is the TV show Comedy Night with Rick Mercer, which is now available on CBC Gem. He is also an author, having penned the memoirs Talking to Canadians and The Road Years.
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Between the Pages, a cross-country event series celebrating the finalists, will once again happen in 2023, with stops in Vancouver (Oct. 16), Ottawa, (Oct. 18), Halifax (Nov. 2) and Toronto (Nov. 7).
Other past Giller Prize winners include Omar El Akkad for What Strange Paradise, Souvankham Thammavongsa for How to Pronounce Knife, Esi Edugyan for Washington Black, Michael Redhill for Bellevue Square, Margaret Atwood for Alias Grace, Mordecai Richler for Barney’s Version, Alice Munro for Runaway, André Alexis for Fifteen Dogs and Madeleine Thien for Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
Toronto businessman Jack Rabinovitch founded the prize in honour of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller, in 1994. Rabinovitch died in 2017 at the age of 87.
You can learn more about the shortlisted books below.
Study for Obedience explores themes of guilt, abuse and prejudice through the eyes of its unreliable narrator. In it, a woman leaves her hometown to move to a “remote northern country” to be a housekeeper for her brother, whose wife recently decided to leave him. Soon after her arrival the community is struck by unusual events from collective bovine hysteria to a potato blight. When the locals direct their growing suspicions of incomers at her, their hostility grows more palpable.
- Sarah Bernstein’s Study for Obedience delves into what it means to be an outsider — read an excerpt now
“The modernist experiment continues to burn incandescently in Sarah Bernstein’s slim novel, Study for Obedience. Bernstein asks the indelible question: what does a culture of subjugation, erasure, and dismissal of women produce? In this book, equal parts poisoned and sympathetic, Bernstein’s unnamed protagonist goes about exacting, in shockingly twisted ways, the price of all that the world has withheld from her. The prose refracts Javier Marias sometimes, at other times Samuel Beckett. It’s an unexpected and fanged book, and its own studied withholdings create a powerful mesmeric effect,” said the jury in their citation.
Bernstein is a Montreal-born author and creative writing teacher. Her other books include her 2021 novel The Coming Bad Days and her collection of prose poems Now Comes the Lightning. Bernstein was named one of Granta’s best young British novelists in 2023. She currently lives in Scotland.
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Birnam Wood is an engaging eco-thriller set in the middle of a landslide in New Zealand. Mira, the founder of a guerilla gardening collective that plants crops amid other criminal environmental activities, sets her sights on an evacuated farm as a way out of financial ruin. The only problem is the American billionaire Robert Lemoine has already laid claim to it as his end-of-the-world lair. After the same thing for polar opposite reasons, their paths cross and Robert makes Mira an offer that would stave off her financial concerns for good. The question is: can she trust him?
“Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood is a rare gem, a novel that is a page-turning thriller and a weighty exploration of climate catastrophe and capitalism. Catton weaves a tale of unlikely allies: an idealistic crew of guerrilla gardeners and an inscrutable doomsteading billionaire. This is a satire about political and generational divides that pokes gentle fun at the characters’ foibles, exposing the hypocrisy on all sides. Catton has her finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist and the novel is aptly riven with anxiety. Online surveillance, income inequality, natural disasters, ecological collapse – whatever keeps you up at night, it’s all here. But at its heart, this is a book about friendship and all the ways we try and fail, and try again, to care for each other. With Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton has penned an instant classic,” the jury said in their citation.
LISTEN | Eleanor Catton speaks with Eleanor Wachtel:
Writers and Company59:02Booker winner Eleanor Catton’s new novel, Birnam Wood, is a moral thriller for our times
Featured VideoIn 2013, Canadian-born, New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton made history when she became the youngest person ever to win the Booker Prize. Catton was just 28 and her novel, The Luminaries, went on to become an international bestseller. Catton later adapted her novel for a BBC-TV mini-series and wrote the screenplay for the 2020 film production of Jane Austen’s Emma. Now, her much anticipated new novel, Birnam Wood, a page-turning eco-thriller set in New Zealand’s South Island, tackles some of the biggest issues of our time, including the climate crisis, digital surveillance and economic inequality.
The Double Life of Benson Yu recounts the difficult adolescence of the titular character growing up in a housing project in 1980s Chinatown. The story takes a metafictional twist, when Yu’s grip on memory and reality falters. The unique structure provides a layered and poignant look into how we come to terms with who we are, what happened to us as children and that finding hope and healing lies in whether we choose to suppress or process our experiences.
“Kevin Chong’s The Double Life of Benson Yu is an ambitious, metafictional novel about a boy, Benny, and the man he becomes. Set against a comic book world, it reveals how we are all simultaneously heroes and villains of our own lives, often working against our best intentions. A young, poor boy, Benny, loses his grandmother and must fend for himself in an apartment in Chinatown until social services intervenes. At the heart of the novel is the issue of trust. Who can we trust? What institutions? Can we trust ourselves? Our stories? But the truth is in the story somewhere. Chong sucks us into a vortical, troubling question of the past decade, a question played out politically but also in our personal lives: how can we distinguish truth from fiction?” said the jury in their citation.
Kevin Chong is a Vancouver-based writer and associate professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. His other books include the nonfiction book Northern Dancer and fiction titles like The Plague and Beauty Plus Pity. He was longlisted for the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize for White Space.
LISTEN | Kevin Chong talks about his new novel with Ryan B. Patrick on The Next Chapter summer edition:
The Next Chapter16:05Kevin Chong exposes the long-lasting effects of abuse in his metafiction tale, The Double Life of Benson Yu
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Set across the United States, Jamaica and Europe from the 1950s to present day, The Islands details the migration stories of Jamaican women and their descendants. Each short story explores colonialism and its impact as women experience the on-going tensions between identity and the place they long to call home.
“Heartbreaking, humorous, often disturbing, and always deeply human, Dionne Irving’s 10 linked stories in The Islands explore the struggle of diaspora Jamaicans to find belonging and connection in their adopted communities – to find home. The stories succinctly capture the remnants of postcolonial oppression – racist, sexist, or classist – that Jamaicans encounter in their new worlds. In several of her stories the characters – mostly women – encounter moments of unsettling disconnection between themselves and the people closest to them; characters in other stories find connection with the least probable acquaintances. Irving presents her many disparate characters, even the unlikeable ones, in an intimate, lucid style that keeps the Jamaican experience vivid and personal. These stories touch us and stay with us,” said the jury in their citation.
Dionne Irving is a writer and creative writing teacher from Toronto. She released her first novel, Quint, in 2021 and her work has been featured in journals and magazines like LitHub, Missouri Review and New Delta Review. The Islands is her debut short story collection.
All the Colour In the World is a story of a young boy named Henry who discovers a passion for art which carries him through the many misadventures of his life in the 20th century. From his first set of colouring pencils he is gifted at his grandmother’s place to the worlds of academia, war and sweeping romance, Henry’s art stays alongside his enduring story.
“With stunning restraint and pathos, CS Richardson has given us a portrait of one man’s journey of the soul — across decades and continents, through loss and grief and hope. Both sweeping and minimalist, All the Colour in the World is Woolfian in its brushstrokes. Quiet moments of being are given as much weight as the chaos of war, and notes on the long history of art balance the depiction of one individual life. As much poetry and mosaic as it is a novel, with not a word out of place, this book is a triumph — a masterclass in how to paint an entire world,” the jury said in their citation.
CS Richardson is a Toronto-based writer and award-winning book designer. His previous novels include The End of the Alphabet which won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book and The Emperor of Paris which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2012.
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