Madeleine Thien, whose latest novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is a generational saga of those shaped and shattered by Mao's Cultural Revolution, has been named a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, it was announced Tuesday.
The Vancouver-born, Montreal-based author is joined on the six-person shortlist by David Szalay, a Montreal-born, UK-raised author nominated for his linked short-story collection, All That Man Is.
This marks the first time since 2011, when Esi Edugyan (Half-Blood Blues) and Patrick deWitt (The Sisters Brothers) were both finalists, that two Canadian writers have been shortlisted for the Booker, one of the world's foremost literary awards.
The winner, who will be announced October 25 in London, receives £50,000 ($87,000).
Long considered one of Canada's most talented young writers, Thien, 42, publisher her first book, a collection of short stories called Simple Recipes, in 2001; it won a handful of prizes, including the City of Vancouver Book Award and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Her debut novel, Certainty, was published in 2006, and won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award; it was followed, in 2011, by Dogs at the Perimeter, which explored the legacy of the Cambodian genocide.
In the Globe and Mail's review of the novel, David Hobbs wrote: "Should any doubt remain, Do Not Say We Have Nothing will cement Madeleine Thien as one of Canada's most talented novelists, at once a successor to Rohinton Mistry and a wholly singular stylist."
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which was also recently longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, begins in present-day Vancouver, where the reader is introducer to Marie, whose father, a talented pianist named Jiang Kai, committed suicide in 1989, when she was 10; from there the novel somersaults backwards in time, to Jiang Kai's life as a student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where he falls under the tutelage of a composer named Sparrow and his cousin, a violinist named Zhuli, and then forward, to the late 1980s, and the weeks leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre.
"I wanted to tell a story in the hope that I could create, for others, a novel that had enchantment, song and meaning," Thien told the Globe in June. "I was also thinking about this phrase, ji yi, which has two meanings: 'to recall, record' and 'art.' I had this image of art, all kinds of art, as a book of records, an alternate history when the official record, in this case contemporary Chinese history, has been compromised. Art as a form of safekeeping."
David Szalay, also 42, is the author of three previous novels: London and the South-East (2008), Innocent (2009) and Spring (2011). He currently lives in Hungary. In his review of the book in the Globe, Steven W. Beattie wrote that All That Man Is "is a tightly interwoven series of self-contained pieces that follows a programmatic structure. Broadly, the arc of the book traces the course of life from the onset of adulthood – marked here by the sexual awakening of adolescence – to old age and impending death."
Thien and Szalay are the first Canadian finalists since 2013, when Eleanor Catton, born in London, Ont., and raised in New Zealand, won for The Luminaries.
When organizers of the prize changed the rules in 2013 to allow all English-language novels to be eligible, there was a concern that it would be that much more difficult for Canadian authors to find a spot among the finalists.
The other finalists include two Americans – Paul Beatty for his razor-sharp satire on race, The Sellout, and Ottessa Moshfegh for her wonderfully eerie novel, Eileen, about a lonely young woman – and two British authors – Deborah Levy, who was a finalist in 2012, for Hot Milk and Graeme Macrae Burnet for his historical crime novel His Bloody Project.
"The Man Booker Prize subjects novels to a level of scrutiny that few books can survive," said Amanda Foreman, chair of this year's jury, in a statement. "In re-reading our incredibly diverse and challenging longlist, it was both agonizing and exhilarating to be confronted by the sheer power of the writing. As a group we were excited by the willingness of so many authors to take risks with language and form. The final six reflect the centrality of the novel in modern culture – in its ability to champion the unconventional, to explore the unfamiliar, and to tackle difficult subjects."
Last year's Booker Prize went to Marlon James for A Brief History of Seven Killings.