Washington Black wins the Giller Prize

by Sunita

The Giller Prize was awarded last night and the winner was Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (my review is here). This is Canada’s biggest fiction award at $100,000, and it’s the second time Edugyan has won it. 

I thought the Giller longlist was interesting but I wasn’t thrilled with the shortlist. I decided not to read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, having had enough autofiction for the year, and the other two books I read didn’t impress me. Here are my reviews, cross-posted from Goodreads:

French Exit by Patrick DeWitt

This is my first novel by DeWitt and probably not a good place to start. I found this very disappointing. There are flashes of wonderful writing, but the novel doesn’t hang together at all. It starts out as a wickedly satirical take on the obscenely wealthy and ends up as a sentimental fable. I went with the complete unreality of the first part because the writing was deft and I was impressed by DeWitt’s apparent commitment to creating characters who were unlikeable yet interesting (Malcolm was interesting despite being a complete blank in many ways). I didn’t really believe that someone as unpleasant as Frances could be so charismatic, but again, I was willing to buy the setup.

But when the setting shifted to Paris, the satire softened and we were confronted with psychic phenomena, uncomfortable scenes set in a reality that was much harder to hand-wave away as funny (a riot and police action against homeless immigrants in a park, watched by the wealthy and bored, from the vantage point of the latter? Why?), and redemption for people who had done absolutely nothing to get to that point, let alone earn it. The symbolism was on-the-nose (Frances buys Malcolm a bicycle), the coincidences started to pile up, and the characters became imbued with attitudes and beliefs that, had they had them from the beginning, would have saved them from their various fates. This is billed as a “tragedy of manners” but I’m not sure what’s tragic about people reaping what they have very clearly sown, despite more opportunities than most people have to take other paths. Unless the messages are that (a) money doesn’t buy happiness; (b) childhood trauma happens to the rich and the poor; and (c) friends are important even when you’re wealthy. No kidding.

It’s much harder to write biting social satire than it looks. That’s why we consider Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, and their fellow writers underrated. This novel attempts to do that but doesn’t succeed. It takes more than an excellent facility with language (which DeWitt has, despite some odd word choices). It takes a deep understanding of context and people, neither which are much in evidence here. It’s not even an amusing trifle, because it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Sorry, DeWitt lovers. I’m willing to try another, but this entry is not good. I’m astonished it made the Giller shortlist. 

An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim

ocean of minutes

Wonderful title, terrific premise, disappointing execution. In 1981 a deadly flu pandemic sweeps through the world, causing fear and panic. When her husband Frank is infected, Polly contracts with a company that promises to cure Frank in return for sending her 12 years into the future as an indentured servant. Frank and Polly arrange to meet each other at a specific place, coming back every Saturday in September until they are reunited. But Polly winds up in 1998, not 1993, in a Galveston that is part of the new country of America, cut off from the northern “United States.” Her skilled-visa status turns out to provide conditions that are only privileged compared to the dire circumstances in which unskilled workers find themselves, and her boss is a dangerous drunk. Polly’s single focus is trying to find Frank, first at their rendezvous and then in more distant locations, but just staying alive and unharmed is her biggest challenge.

The story alternates between flashbacks of Frank and Polly’s pre-disaster life in Buffalo and Polly’s life in 1998 Galveston. We learn how they met, fell in love, and eventually how they wound up in
Texas (the flu was widespread in the south but not the north of the (original) USA. These sections are useful and help us understand Polly’s devotion to Frank, but they weren’t as effective as they needed to be. This is supposed to be a love that spans space, time, and the lowest levels of despair, and I didn’t quite see it. Polly and Frank are nice people, but Polly’s almost split-second decision to take a leap into the unknown to save Frank didn’t seem to emerge from a great romance. In an interview I read, Lim said she didn’t realize she was writing such a romantic story until her editor pointed it out, and it kind of shows. This is a book (as she observed) about migration and displacement, with the love story accompanying that, rather than a romance set in a time of dystopia-level migration hardships.

Polly may have been a little too every-woman to make this story work for me. I appreciated the idea of such a person being thrown into a world she didn’t expect and can’t make sense of, and that is what immigration entails, whether it’s relatively easy or horrific as it is here. But Polly is also the Queen of Bad Decisions. She never seems to stop and think. Her initial need to get to the meeting point without scoping out the terrain is understandable, since she arrives in September. But she is endlessly credulous, and I never felt as if she was actually taking the time to understand what was going on around her. Her indenture is for 33 months, and she’s five years later than she’s supposed to be, but she doesn’t sit down and work through the ramifications of that.

The world-building is revealed to us and to her in ways that seem plot-motivated rather than organic. In fact, a lot of the storyline requires Idiot Plot moments, i.e., the characters behave like idiots and that advances the plot. Her willingness to trust her boss, even though she is shown to be suspicious of his intentions, makes no sense to me but it moves the story to the next phase. And so on.

The characters are mostly sketches rather than fully realized people. The men are duplicitous. The women are mostly friendly and try to help Polly; I would have liked to see more of Cookie and that gang, and Misty and her group came and went too fast. The things that happen to Polly are mostly because men are awful, and even the good thing that puts the last sequence into motion happens because a man is atoning for bad things. This is not, in the end, a love story. It is a story of survival. Which is worth reading! But the emphasis on the love story part creates a tension between the ideas part of the novel and the emotions part of the novel, one that is never really resolved.

The writing is similarly an uneasy blend of literary and mundane. You get lovely sentences followed by clunky ones. It is, however, a page-turner. You want to know what’s going to happen next, how Polly is going to escape her latest peril, whether she’s ever going to find Frank and what happens when she does. The time-travel setup as a metaphor for migration is intriguing and works pretty well, and the description of dystopian Galveston, while choppy, frequently creates a compelling atmosphere. But overall, the book is too uncertain of what it’s trying to be.