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Bookshelf Diaries

For novelist Esi Edugyan, an ocean-view home serves as a library and office

In 2018, Esi Edugyan won her second Scotiabank Giller Prize for her historical novel Washington Black. At once a thrilling adventure tale in the best 19th-century tradition and a moving portrait of a young black slave on the verge of freedom, it confirmed Edugyan as one of Canada’s most exciting novelists.

Like her previous Giller winner, 2011’s Half-Blood Blues, it was also a finalist for the international Man Booker Prize. Not only that, former U.S. president Barack Obama named it one of his favourite books last year.

Edugyan wrote her tempestuous novel in the tranquil surroundings of her ocean-view home outside Victoria, B.C. The three-storey house, which she shares with her husband, poet and novelist Steven Price, and their two young children, is a readers’ paradise.

On the ground floor is a guest room/library devoted to their collection of more than 5,000 books.

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“People walk into the room and some are horrified, they think it’s a waste of space,” says the soft-spoken Edugyan, laughing. “But for me it’s such a pleasure to walk through a space that’s just filled with books.”

Price is the family librarian who keeps the room organized, with separate sections for fiction, poetry, literary criticism – all alphabetized. And the collection continues to grow.

We already have more books than we could ever hope to finish in a lifetime, and still almost every weekend, we leave the bookstores with more. — Esi Edugyan on her ever-growing home library

“We already have more books than we could ever hope to finish in a lifetime, and still almost every weekend, we leave the bookstores with more,” Edugyan says. “It’s a compulsion, really. But it gives us joy.”

Recently, she picked up a copy of Irish author Edna O’Brien’s classic 1960s trilogy, The Country Girls, prompted by Edugyan’s appearance at the West Cork Literary Festival this summer. “I’d never been to Ireland before,” she says. “It made me realize I hadn’t read those books, even though they’re obviously part of the Irish canon, so I’ll do that shortly.”

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Edugyan does most of her reading during her workday, between 9:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. “I read in my home office,” she says, “or if the weather cooperates, sometimes out on the balcony, in the sunshine.” Her office includes a bookshelf devoted only to her work notebooks and the research material she’s reading for her latest novel. “That’s all I want in my office,” she says. “It allows me to concentrate.”

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When not reading for work, Edugyan always has a list of books she can’t wait to dig into. Among the new releases she’s eagerly awaiting is the latest from another Irish novelist, Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier, and Giller finalist Marina Endicott’s new seagoing historical novel, The Difference. “There’s also a whole lot of non-fiction that I’m curious about as well,” she says. It includes Nobody’s Looking at You, the forthcoming essay collection by The New Yorker’s Janet Malcolm. “What a writer!” Edugyan enthuses. “She’s so fiercely intelligent. I just love her work.”

Edugyan, who grew up in Calgary, the child of Ghanaian immigrants, caught the reading bug early. “Every Saturday, my father used to take us to the library,” she recalls. “We were allowed to take out whatever we wanted, and we’d come away with a big stack.”

She credits the classics with igniting her desire to be a writer: George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the fiction of the late Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul – especially The Mimic Men and A Bend in the River.

Then there’s her love affair with the Russians, notably Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. “I used to read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment every fall in my twenties,” she confesses. “It was something I had to do, I got something new out of it every time. That book was hugely formative. He hits all the notes: it’s funny, but of course it’s also terribly tragic and absurd.”

This fall, Edugyan will be hosting the second round of The Globe and Mail’s Book Club, following its successful launch this past spring with Margaret Atwood. The club allows a prominent Canadian writer to spotlight a work by a fellow author. (Atwood chose Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone.) Edugyan isn’t permitted to reveal her book choice yet. “All I can say is that it took me a long time to choose it – I gave it a lot of careful consideration,” she teases. “I’m looking forward to discussing it.”

CREDITS: Photography by MELISSA RENWICK; Editing by KIRAN RANA; Creative direction by MONICA BIALOBRZESKI; Art direction, design and development by JEANINE BRITO

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The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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