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Books Esi Edugyan’s Giller Prize win reflects a new taste for fabulism

There was great joy and – among Toronto publishers – relief when Esi Edugyan won the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize last night. This was a choice blessedly free of controversy. Edugyan was the overall popular favourite: This is a polished, moving, beautiful book, with a dark core, and as it is conventional in form it will be popular with readers. The greatest relief through the room was that the assembled publicists would not have to battle to sell a 600-page book in translation about a small Quebec town. This one sells itself.

Although it was Edugyan’s second win of this prize, the short list as a whole did reflect an interesting and I think new set of tastes. There were subterranean links among several of these books – a hidden theme, if you like. That characteristic was fabulism. Edugyan’s Washington Black is a 19th-century story of adventure and exploration that, while not exactly fantastical, has some romantic elements – an escape from a slave plantation by hydrogen balloon, scientific discovery in the Arctic, and a cast of characters who are frequently maimed, deformed, eccentric or otherwise unusual, like the great pirate characters of Treasure Island. Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart is a multigenerational family saga with magical realist elements that have drawn comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes is speculative fiction involving time travel. Patrick deWitt’s French Exit, a kind of allegory, also involving a cast of extremely colourful and articulate characters with passionate and implausible stories to tell, also exists in a fictitious world that we recognize at once as being not quite our own; it is a magical world in which a dead husband inhabits a cat’s body, a world not unlike that of the greatest children’s films. (Sheila Heti’s essay-memoir Motherhood was the exception; it did not have any of these characteristics and so I am not including it in this discussion.) What this particular jury liked, it seems, was not gritty verisimilitude but fun and fancy.

Washington Black has shown Esi Edugyan to be the most ambitious novelist in Canada, one who combines scope with technical chops. The grand historical narratives she spins – Nazi Germany in Half-Blood Blues, 19th-century slavery, trade and science in this one – are meticulously researched, perfectly plotted, real stories with high stakes, suspense, moments of gory violence, conclusive endings (the hardest thing for even the most imaginative of novelists to come up with). The horrific brutality she describes so directly is so ghastly that it is sometimes hard to read. Nor did I find that it has any pious good-for-you qualities, for her protagonist, though a good man, is no mere victim.

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Her writing is elegant and eloquent; her point of view is always faultlessly consistent. In Washington Black she maintains a pitch-perfect 19th-century lexicon and tone throughout; indeed, the protagonist’s thoughtful voice is the most soothing element of its violent and ugly universe. These are the qualities of the great 19th-century novels: They are an antidote to the quiet and listlessness and claustrophobia that notoriously marks contemporary Canadian fiction. Edugyan is a major talent, even maybe a minor genius.

After such an encomiastic paragraph I’m sure you can sense an “and yet” coming from me, and you are right – but it is a very mild one. My “and yet” is simply that I personally cannot shake, in historical fiction such as this, the awareness that I am reading fiction, that this is a book – possibly even a movie – and not real life. Is it perhaps the historical distance (and I admit I have always been nervous about plausibility in the historical novel)? Or is it this larger-than-life quality, which obviously so pleased the Giller jury this year?

Edugyan has told interviewers that her story is inspired by real people – a real freed slave named Andrew Bogle who was involved with an English aristocrat named Roger Tichborne (like her character nicknamed Titch). So much for implausibility. And yes there were hydrogen balloons in 1830, and yes it is possible that one of those sinking over the vast Atlantic ocean might luckily crash-land smack-dab on top of a sailing ship – and that that sailing ship might house the fascinating character of Captain Benedikt Kinast and his crew of orphaned boys on a mysterious mission… but you’ve had quite an unusual week when all these things happen at once.

There is a very film-noiry scene in Washington Black in which a mysterious stranger with a squint sits down beside Black, the escaped slave, in a rundown tavern in Nova Scotia. The stranger says cryptic things until we realize he must be the bounty hunter Willard who has finally tracked down his prey and intends to kill him. The intellectual tough-guy dialogue between them is a lot of fun. “Nothing is accidental in the works of nature,” says the philosophical murderer. “Do you know who said that? Aristotle.” It reminds me of similar scenes in James Bond films.

We are also, interestingly, very much in the hired-gun-western territory of Patrick deWitt, Edugyan’s perennial rival for the Giller prize.

None of this is a bad thing: One wants glamour as well as serious history from fiction. It remains to be seen whether this return to bold make-believe in our fiction is a lasting trend or just one prize jury’s statement. There are after all lots of interesting books out there that are set in the contemporary world that do not fit this template.

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