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Guessing the Giller: Who will take home Canadian literature's big prize?

Canadian publishers may be dying and international houses rationalizing, but the literary show goes on, climaxing amid confusion on live television Tuesday night with the presentation of $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize for the best Canadian fiction of 2012. Perhaps reflecting the wider disarray, jurors for this fall’s three major fiction prizes named an unusually diverse group of titles for honours, forestalling the sort of buzz that built last year when Patrick deWitt’s The Sister Brothers and Esi Edugyan’s Giller-wining Half-Blood Blues dominated all lists. And perhaps reflecting the international composition of the Scotiabank Giller jury, which includes CanLit newcomers Roddy Doyle of Ireland and Gary Shteyngart of the United States, its shortlist is the clear outrider, bringing attention to names rarely if ever seen in such contests and ignoring others that are. And giving handicappers conniptions. But they can’t all be long shots. John Barber rates the contenders and how they are likely to fare when the winner is announced

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The Upmarket Thriller: The Giller jury signalled its favourite the moment it announced its shortlist, reserving special praise for Will Ferguson’s 419, a fast-paced, impeccably plotted thriller that investigates the world of Nigerian e-mail scams from the African inside out. Anticipating complaints form the literati, the jury took pains to point out that Ferguson’s novel is far more than a mere thriller, achieving a depth of cultural insight and characterization rarely encountered in that genre. It is also by far the best-crafted, most readable of all the books on the Giller list. A win would make a strong populist departure from a tradition that generally favours the poetic-rumination, nothing-much-happens school of Canadian literature. Odds: 8:5

Larry MacDougal/The Globe and Mail

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The Immigrant Song: Kim Thuy’s Ru, on the other hand, represents a variety of poetic rumination that is broadly appealing – and has already won the book all kinds of awards in its original French edition. One reason is that plenty happens in this short (160 pages), beautifully made, impeccably translated little book, beginning with the disruption of a well-established family’s good life in Saigon and ending, via leaky boats and a refugee camp, with new life and new hope in Canada. A quintessential immigrant novel, Ru stands out as the most formally ambitious of the five nominated titles, despite having been written by an amateur in her first attempt at authorship. It likely seemed highly original to French readers in Quebec and abroad, where such success stories have yet to become a genre. The impression is harder to maintain in the English-Canadian hothouse of ever-more elaborate migrant themes, but that won’t sway the foreign majority of Giller judges. Giving Ru the prize would be daring without being controversial, its inarguable purity raising it to the status of first-choice compromise candidate. Odds: 2:1

Graham Hughes/The Globe and Mail

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Grannyland: “Canadians love their grannies,” former Giller judge Victoria Glendinning remarked after plowing through the dross to help select five nominees in 2009. With The Imposter Bride, Nancy Richler proves the point, offering a classic family saga in which the trauma of leaving the war-torn/poverty-stricken old country reverberates implacably through the generations. No fewer than two indomitable grannies guard the mysterious past where Richler’s Canadian-born heroine searches for clues to her own identity – an occasionally intriguing quest, albeit one padded with unnecessary rumination and ending in outright anticlimax. As immigrant novels go, this one is up-to-date if less than inspiring, attractive mainly for its portrait of postwar life in Jewish Montreal. Its title suggests an appeal to the “Wife of,” “Daughter of,” “Mother of” market for women’s fiction, where it might well prosper. Tuesday night, not so much. Odds: 3:1

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The Bland Provocateur: So far, Alix Ohlin’s Inside is known mainly as the subject of a notoriously scathing review in The New York Times – a very nasty piece of work but not, as it happens, wrong. The only interior Ohlin shows convincingly here is that of the creative-writing workshop, where simple observation counts as a good week’s work and any number of observations thus accumulated can be stitched loosely into a longish thing simulating a novel. Ohlin’s style-less conversational prose creates a flattened landscape where the slightest chapter-ending aperçu gains undue prominence. Meanwhile the story meanders, its lack of clear direction no doubt meant to reflect the happenstance that rules its characters’ lives. What the reader finds instead is more like a series of extended exercise-book vignettes. Inside is the only book on the Giller list that is also nominated for one of the other two major awards this season, so some smart people must like it. It’s hard to imagine a jury dominated by such lively writers as Doyle and Shteyngart awarding such blancmange stuff – unless they want to make us all look bad. Odds: 5:1

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Beautiful Loser: Every short list needs a no-hoper, and this year Newfoundland writer Russell Wangersky plays the role expertly with Whirl Away, a collection of a dozen short stories indifferently published by a small house in a cheap-looking paperback edition that seems overpriced. What could be more underdoggedly Canadian than that? The fact that Wangersky is an occasionally terrific writer whose work clearly belongs on this list can’t help him Tuesday night, unfortunately. At his best, Wangersky combines the allusive magic of an Alice Munro story with the spring-loaded snap of a clever O. Henry contraption. At his worst, he’s hokey, his stories too pat and symmetrical. Reading them in sequence, as stories are never meant to be, dulls the impact of the best. Wangersky’s descriptions of East Coast nature are superb. But the fact that two different characters in two different stories die in the same bizarre manner, when stuff in the beds of the trucks they are in the process of crashing shoots into the cabs and crushes their heads, suggests a certain lack of range. A win would certainly upset the Upper Canadian applecart of Canadian publishing. Odds: 10:

Paul Daly/The Globe and Mail

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