Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a sweeping examination of history, art, family and trauma, filtered through the legacy of Mao's Cultural Revolution and the brutality of the Tiananmen Square protests, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize on Monday.
The $100,000 prize is widely considered the most prestigious in Canadian literature, and caps an auspicious autumn for Ms. Thien; Do Not Say We Have Nothing received the Governor-General's Literary Award last month, and was also a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.
"I love the nominees, and I would have been happy for any of them to win," she said moments after accepting the prize. When asked what she hoped this prize would do for her career, she said: "To be honest, I hope that I can do more things for my fellow writers. I hope that I can have the time and space to write more, but also to be part of the community in a different way. It's a gift. I didn't expect to win."
The 42-year-old writer, who was born in Vancouver and lives in Montreal, is the author of two previous novels, Certainty (2006) and Dogs at the Perimeter (2011), as well as a collection of short fiction, Simple Recipes (2001). While Ms. Thien has long been considered one of the country's most talented young writers, with her books receiving critical acclaim, the country's major literary awards had eluded her – until this year.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is narrated by Jiang Li-ling, also known as Marie, a Vancouver mathematician reflecting on the death of her father, Jiang Kai, a skilled concert pianist who took his own life when Marie was 10. The novel jumps back and forth between continents and decades, chronicling, among other narrative strands, Jiang Kai's relationship with his mentor, Sparrow, a talented composer and teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, as well as the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, a generation later, witnessed by Sparrow's daughter, Ai-ming, who eventually comes to live with Marie and her mother in Canada.
"I thought I was writing a 200-page novel about the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, but by the time I was 50 or 100 pages in, I knew it wasn't the book I thought it was going to be," Ms. Thien told The Globe and Mail last month. "But where I was going was, for me, the most exciting writing I had ever done."
The critics – and the award juries – have agreed.
"Should any doubt remain, Do Not Say We Have Nothing will cement Madeleine Thien as one of Canada's most talented novelists," wrote David B. Hobbs in a review of the novel published by The Globe in June. "Although ostensibly a historical novel about two of the most significant moments in recent Chinese history, Thien has written a supple epic about that which remains behind after each new beginning. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is thoroughly researched but without the burden of trivia, both riveting and lyrical."
The novel was chosen by a jury consisting of the Scottish novelist Alan Warner, British author Samantha Harvey, and Canadian writers Jeet Heer, Kathleen Winter, and Lawrence Hill, who chaired the jury. They considered 161 books for this year's prize.
"She's a major writer with incredible talent," said Mr. Hill. "I think it's a really close, beautiful look at the salvation of music and love and life in the face of genocide. It's a huge epic novel told in an unusual way – without a single protagonist, without a single struggle. It's a challenging book, and you have to work to read it. You have to pay attention. It's a book that asks a lot of the reader."
The other finalists, who each receive $10,000, were Emma Donoghue for The Wonder; Mona Awad for 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl; Gary Barwin for Yiddish for Pirates; Zoe Whittall for The Best Kind of People; and Catherine Leroux for The Party Wall. (Ms. Leroux receives $7,000, while the novel's translator, Lazer Lederhendler, receives $3,000.)
This year's ceremony, held at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Toronto, was hosted by stand-up comedian and CBC personality Steve Patterson. Celebrity presenters included actor Gordon Pinsent, musician Tanya Tagaq and playwright Ins Choi.
The prize was founded in 1994 by businessman and philanthropist Jack Rabinovitch in honour of his late wife, the literary journalist Doris Giller. Past winners include Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Joseph Boyden, Michael Ondaatje and André Alexis, who won last year's prize for his novel Fifteen Dogs.
Ms. Thien dedicated the win, in part, to her former editor and publisher, Ellen Seligman, who died in March. Standing on stage, minutes after the announcement, she reflected on what her former editor would think of this moment.
"She would be so proud. She always believed, no matter what. Even when the work wasn't getting the kind of attention she hoped it would get. She believed in it. And she taught me to believe in it. No matter what."