Category Archives: GillerPrize

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart

McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Toronto, On, 2010

From my to-be-read pile.  Long-listed for the 2010 Giller Prize.

I first discovered Jane Urquhart by accident when I picked up “Away” off my library shelves.  I have followed her work ever since.

Sanctuary Line is the story of an Ontario farming family with roots in Ireland.  Liz Crane has returned to the family farm, works measuring the wings of Monarch Butterflies and regularly visits her mother at a place called The Golden Field and finds memories rising every time she picks up an object or looks out a window.

Haunted by the death of her cousin Mandy, Liz finds herself tangled in the stories of her large and varied family.  Drawn to the past, sifting through memories, she slowly discovers a truth that has been hidden for years.

Urquhart is an author whose characters are firmly rooted in the past.   Her novels delve into family histories, family secrets and what brings the past into the present.


Filed under Books, CanadianBookChallenge6, GillerPrize, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

The Meagre Tarmac by Clark Blaise

The Meagre Tarmac by Clark Blaise

Biblioasis, Emeryville, Ontario, 2011

From my TBR pile.

I had never heard of Clark Blaise before seeing this book nominated for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller prize.  It turns out Blaise founded the postgraduate Creative Writing Program at Concordia University, served as the Director of the International Writing Program at Iowa from 1990 to 1998, and is the President of the Society for the Study of the Short Story.  He is married to author Bharati Mukherjee and has spent time traveling in India.

The Meagre Tarmac is a novel made of linked stories strung together like an assortment of beads, exploring the places where tradition, culture and change meet.  First and second generation Indo-Americans face intimate struggles of immigration and identity, trying to find home.  What do they cling to and what do they leave behind?

Initially it was difficult for me to accept stories of East Indians written by a white North American, but I believe Blaise’s connections through family and travel bring truth and compassion to his writing.  He is a master story-teller, this is a beautiful collection and I will search out more of his work.


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge6, GillerPrize, Immigration, India, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

One summer I spent some time on Vancouver Island.  I remember sitting on the deck of the place where I was staying and watching the cruise ships passing up and down the Georgia Strait.  They seemed magical, all lit up, self-contained worlds.  Rows and rows of lights gleaming in the dark.

Michael Ondaatje’s new novel is about a journey taken by an eleven year old boy.  Traveling alone on a cruise ship from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to join his mother in England, Michael, nicknamed Mynah,  is seated at the “cat’s table”, as for away from the Captain’s Table as possible, his companions, a group of odd adults and two other boys traveling on their own.  All of these outcasts have interesting lives.  The boys have free run of most of  the ship and spend their time exploring, listening, being rambunctious, determined to push all boundaries.  As an adult, remembering this journey, Michael is filled with longing and loss.

A quiet book that contains several mysteries, it is the characters from The Cat’s Table that I enjoyed the most.  It’s as if Michael was showing me his memories, describing his friends and many of the adults on his journey.  Returning with him to this voyage  I feel a great sadness that these people have drifted apart.  There is a sense of regret.

So began a tradition between us.  That I would at certain moments in my life tell Emily things that I would not tell others.  And later in our lives, much later, she would talk to me about what she was going through.  All through my life, Emily would be distinct from everyone I knew.  From page 112.


I am someone who has a cold heart.  If  I am beside a great grief I throw barriers up so the loss can not go too deep or too far.  There is a wall instantly in place, and it will not fall.  Proust has this line: “We think we no longer love our dead, but…suddenly we catch sight again of an old glove and burst into tears.”  I don’t know what it was.  There was no glove…From page 141.

This is a story of  travel to a new world, a new life, and gives a taste of what that must feel like, particularly to a child displaced by family choice, not the necessity of someone leaving due to political or social upheaval.  Ondaatje has said that the idea for this novel came from personal experience but that he wanted to tell a fictionalized account of something that had been forgotten.  I’m not sure what he means by that, it all feels very real to me.  That is one sign of a master story-teller.

Every immigrant family, it seems, has someone who does not belong in the new country they have come to.  It feels like permanent exile to that one brother or wife who cannot stand a silent fate in Boston or London or Melbourne.  I’ve met many who remain haunted by the persistent ghost of an earlier place…From page 139.

I found this book beautifully and simply written and enjoyed it, as I have so many of Michael Ondaatje’s other novels.  I have also read some of his poetry.

Other reviews:

Buried in Print

Jules’ Book Reviews

Reading Matters

The Mookse and the Gripes


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, GillerPrize, Historical Fiction, LiteraryFiction, Review

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin

Black Cat, New York, 2009

Borrowed from my library.  Short-listed for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Anne Greves is sixteen year old when she meets Serey,  a Cambodian student and musician, in a jazz club.  He had been forced to leave his home and family during the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime.  Going against her father’s wishes, Anne follows her instincts and falls in love with Serey.  When the borders to Cambodia reopen he returns to search for his family.  Anne is left alone.  She continues with her life, all the time dreaming of her lover.  She secretly studies Khmer, the language of Cambodia.

But in the secret hour of each day I studied Khmer.  The language of love.  A curling script with soundless buried r’s, beautifully balanced between consonants and vowels with two sounds each.  I wrapped my tongue around the language of your childhood, embraced you with each new word.  My teacher had a wooden leg.  His name was Vithu and I paid him with my flower money.  He had managed to escape across the border early in the war but not before he’d stepped on a landmine.  He had been precocious, a farmer’s son who learned to read and write at the monastery.  He taught me words and he taught me how to speak.  He tried to teach me modesty.  He said, If someone says, You cook well or you speak well, you must say, No I don’t, and lower your eyes.  In Cambodia a virtuous woman moves without making a sound on the floor.  from page 48.

A decade later, after writing Serey letters and getting no response, after trying to live with her loss,  Anne sees something on television that changes her life.   She quits her job, buys a ticket to Phnom Penh and goes in search of Serey.  Engulfed in the reality of Cambodia, she begins to learn to see.

Imagine a street; imagine waking up one morning and teenaged voices outside shouting, Comrades, it is Year Zero.

Country kids who cannot drive lurch down the street in tanks and trucks.  They have been hiding out in the jungle.  They screech brakes, pop clutches.  they scream through megaphones.  They fire guns and kill anyone who talks back or asks questions or, god forbid, refuses to move.  They do not have good judgement.  But they can choose anyone to die.  Most neither read nor write.  Imagine going out into the street and watching a man ask why he must leave his home and a teenager lifting his gun and shooting him.  from page 69.

Echlin writes with an intensity that fills her characters with strength and brings the places that they hold in the world into sharp focus.  The Disappeared is a love story, one that expands out from two lovers to engulf an entire culture.  There is beauty and grace in this novel,  the belief that the way to get through the darkness of genocide is to never forget, and the knowledge that love is an antidote for despair.  I’ve been reading a lot of books about war lately.  I think this one is my favorite.  I highly recommend it.

Other reviews: Fizzy Thoughts,   My Friend Amy,   The Mooske and the Gripes

Have your read it?


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, GillerPrize, LiteraryFiction, Review

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.  Winner of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

First released by Gaspereau Press, a small publishing house in Nova Scotia, this novel tells the story of a daughter following the trail of her father’s past and trying to piece together the puzzle of her family and of the relationship formed between her Dad, Napoleon Haskell, and his friend Henry Carey.

The sentimentalists starts with the narrator and her sister moving their Dad from Fargo, North Dakota to Henry’s house, a house that sits on the shores of a lake in Ontario, Canada.   This is no ordinary lake.  It was created years ago, by a dam built to create a reservoir that flooded whole towns and covered the house and land that Henry, and Henry’s son Owen, had grown up in.

Skibsrud is a poet and the emotional depth of this small novel comes in images created by her beautiful way with language.  The lake holds memories, an unfinished boat holds the desolation of Napoleon’s marriage.  Eventually, Napoleon is dying, we learn some of his history and the basis for the connection between him and Henry.

There was something in his voice, though – an apology for something too big for him, and which was perhaps not even intended for me – and still, he regarded me as he spoke.  Still, it was as though he were in fact reaching out.  As though he were in fact touching me.  But for once he did not, and after some time passed into which we again said nothing, I started the motor on the boat and drove off.  From page 126.

There is  sadness in the novel, also a sense of resolution and deep love.   I wondered how connected it’s roots are to Johanna Skibrud’s relationship with her  father.  Turns out part of it is based on her Father’s testimony at a hearing for an Article 32 investigation of an  incident at Quang Tri, South Vietnam, in October  1967.

It seems we are entering a time to revisit the war in Southeast Asia through fiction.  I have read two novels about Vietnam and one about Cambodia in the last two months.  Maybe it’s time to read The Things They Carried again.


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, GillerPrize, LiteraryFiction, Review, Vietnam

Late Nights On Air by Elizabeth Hay

Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2008

Winner of the 2007 Scotia Bank Giller Prize.

Borrowed from the library.

Last September I read Elizabeth Hay’s A Student of Weather and really enjoyed it.  I was introduced to this author through the Canadian Book Challenge and decided to read this Giller Prize winner for Canadian Book Challenge 4.  The one thing I found unsettling  in Hay’s writing was her use of foreshadowing, I would much rather have been left in the dark about some events.

Yellowknife is a town that seems to draw people to it, people either searching for something or running away from something.  In Hay’s novel, which takes place in the 1970’s,  many of those people end up working at the local radio station.  This collection of strangers, along with citizens and native people, form an insular community surrounded by pressures from the rest of the world.  With the building of a television station and the possibility of a pipeline, change is coming to this tiny northern town.

The radio crew, men and women dancing around each other, are filled with longing and loneliness. Some of these people have histories that contain small but devastating failures.  As relationships form, the past colors desires that bubbles to the surface.  Hay has a way with her characters,  she lovingly draws them with a few simple sentences.

The word ignited a connection between them, an identification, a deep interest.  Shy.  For Gwen it was a tiny, precise, potent word like air, like loam, rock, sand, clay, marl, silt, mud, one of the building blocks of the world she lived in.  An old word, wonderfully adapted to what it described.  Being shy.  Which meant shying away from oneself and from others, from life itself.  From page 112

The novel has much to say about voice and memory.  Judge Berger is holding an inquiry about the purposed pipeline.  He has invited all to speak. The indigenous people tell their histories and stories, the oilmen talk of development and progress.

…”Malarkey,” Teresa said, and laughed.  No purpose was served, she said, by all the malarkey that happens when people aren’t honest.
“In white culture, people are so busy lying through their teeth.  So busy thinking about getting ahead and making money, so busy thinking about how they’ll come across, that they can’t be themselves in a natural way.  It builds up such a complicated and depressing web.”
Teresa wasn’t laughing anymore.  To Gwen she looked tired, uncharacteristically worn out.  From pages 145/146.

And then there is change.  As people begin to move away, as the radio station becomes more threatened, four of the crew decide to take a trip into the Barrens, following the trail of John Hornby, a man who, along with his young cousin and a friend, died there in 1927.


John Hornby's Cabin. Image from Wikipedia.



Although I enjoyed the beginnings of this novel,  here is where it really came alive for me.  This group of strangers ends up in a place that defies their imagination and become part of an event that is like a dream.

They paddled to the south side of the river, as did Harry and Eleanor, and waited with thumping hearts for the caribou to come towards them along the shore, but the animals clambered out of the water and went the other way.  Then another, smaller group swam across the river and they too went up the sloping bank through low willows and spruce, the up over the rocky ledge and out of sight.
They had lunch on the rise of land above the river and realized they were on the edge of a large herd.  Caribou in the hundreds were all around them, in the distance and moving slowly, or not moving at all, blending in like boulders on the open tundra of grass and heath and rounded hills.  What they’d been hoping for had finally happened…
…..It was like witnessing the arrival of a myth: caribou emerged from the land and belonged to it, tentative, purposeful, graceful, shy, their colours buff, brown, grey, pale, Gwen’s colours when she first arrived at the station.  What they were seeing was the mass arrival of something beautifully recessive and fleeting.  They could have missed it just as easily, a few hours one way or the other.  From pages 292/293.

I find this part of Late Nights On Air one of the best evocations of humans faced with the world outside themselves I have ever read, and it brought the Caribou migration alive for me in ways even magnificent photographs have not.  The four continue their journey and finally reach Hornby’s gravesite.  In the end, returning to Yellowknife, they suffer losses, separate, then reconnect.  It is a bittersweet finish to a beautifully written novel.

Other reviews:

Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf

The Written Word

Today’s Adventure


Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, ContemporaryFiction, GillerPrize, Review

The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre

The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre

Random House Canada, Toronto, 2009

Winner of the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

This is another Canadian title I couldn’t wait for. Thanks to, I own this one.

Linden MacIntyre is an investigative reporter with the fifth estate, a news show broadcast on the Canadian network, CBC.  After reading The Bishop’s Man I would love to see his news stories.

This is a novel about the Catholic Church and sexual abuse. It is a novel about power and the abuse of power.  Father Duncan MacAskill, the narrator, has been his bishop’s clean-up man,  sent to visit priests, those who have crossed boundaries with their young parishioners.  His job?  Send the priest away and quiet any parish rumblings.  Cover things up.

I’ve often tried to remember how it started, how I became his..what?  What am I?  I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.  Let me put it this way: for other priests, I’m not a welcome presence on the doorstep.

The first summons by the bishop had seemed innocuous enough.  The particulars are almost lost now, obscured by far more troubling memories, but I remember what her said: “I’ve asked you to come here because you have a good head on your shoulders.”  From page 9.

When the bishop hears of an impending media scandal he ships Duncan off to his a parish on Cape Breton Island,  to get him out of harms way.  This church is very close to where Duncan grew up.  Memories, family and local connections prove too much, causing Duncan to revisit his past.  Eventually he turns to alcohol and, in the end, realizes he must make a choice.

MacIntyre approaches this difficult topic by giving the reader a compelling narrator and a fast-paced story, almost a mystery.  Cape Breton Island, and the sea that surrounds it,  offer a refuge from disturbing events and support  for a man facing his past.  This is a courageous book,  gentle and clearly written, surprisingly deep.  It allows us to consider Father Duncan’s dilemma with compassion and without judgement.

Other review:

an adventure in reading


Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, Fiction, GillerPrize