Back in 2001, poet Michael Redhill's debut novel Martin Sloane was a short-listed finalist for the Giller Prize. Sixteen years later, Mr. Redhill's Bellevue Square, a darkly comic literary thriller about a woman who fears for her sanity and eventually her life when she learns that her doppelganger has appeared in a local park, won the Scotiabank Giller that had long eluded him.
An invitation-only black-tie crowd at a lavish, televised gala held at the Ritz-Carlton Toronto witnessed Mr. Redhill accept what is generally considered to be the most illustrious honour in Canadian literature. The American born, Toronto-raised writer won $100,000, which is the country's richest book-based prize.
"I've been telling a close friend of mine this fall that to judge by all the things that are happening to me, I must be in a coma," Mr. Redhill said upon receiving the prize. "But if I am, you guys are too, so let's not all wake up from it."
In a emotional acceptance speech, the Toronto-based author thanked his editor, publisher, arts councils and family members, including his mother, who was in attendance. "For the people in my life, thank you for accepting me for the deranged person that I am."
This year's gala was the first in its 23-year history to be held without its founder. Toronto businessman Jack Rabinovitch died on Aug. 6, at the age of 87, a few days after falling down the stairs of his Toronto home. Mr. Rabinovitch, a champion of writers and of books and the written word, created the prize in 1994 to honour his wife, the journalist Doris Giller, who died a year earlier.
"It feels impossible that my father isn't here," Elana Rabinovitch, the executive director of the Giller Prize, told The Globe and Mail.
This year's Giller ceremony included a tribute in words, pictures and a moving rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah by the Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman.
Mr. Rabinovitch was not known to be a sentimental man, and didn't consider the annual event to be about him. But he was the man who began and ended the feast for nearly a quarter century, greeting guests with a smile at the beginning of the evening and handing out the prize purse at the end of the night.
"He gave me the cheque and he gave me a hug and he gave me a feeling of confidence," Madeleine Thien, last year's Giller winner for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing, told The Globe.
Mr. Redhill, 51, is responsible for four novels, including 2006's Consolation, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He's written a novel for young adults, four collections of poetry and two plays. He also writes a series of crime novels under the name Inger Ash Wolfe. Set in Toronto, the Doubleday Canada-published Bellevue Square is the first in the projected trilogy, Modern Ghosts.
This year's jury – Anita Rau Badami, Richard Beard, Nathan Englander, 2015 Giller winner André Alexis and 2013 winner Lynn Coady – lauded Bellevue Square's "complex literary wonders of doppelgangers and bifurcated brains and alternate selves, the explorations of family, community, mental health and literary life." Beyond the mysterious elements, the jury noted, the novel is "warm, and funny, and smart."
In considering the year's top novel or short-story collection, the jury read 112 books submitted by 73 publisher imprints from across the country. The other shortlisted titles, all novels, included Rachel Cusk's Transit; Ed O'Loughlin's Minds of Winter; Eden Robinson's Son of a Trickster; and Michelle Winters's I Am a Truck.
The four other Giller finalists received $10,000 each.
Guests at the ceremony dined, drank and enjoyed the hosting of comedic actress Mary Walsh.
All in attendance celebrated Canadian fiction and one of its greatest boosters, Mr. Rabinovitch. "It's different without him, no question," Brad Martin, the president and chief executive officer of Penguin Random House Canada, told The Globe. "But at the end of the day, the winner is going to be the winner and they're going to sell a lot of books. The whole country is going to celebrate that, and that's what Jack would have wanted."