About the least surprising thing that happened during the Writers' Trust of Canada awards ceremony on Tuesday was that Miriam Toews took home the top prize. As expected, her critically adored sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows, was awarded the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the $25,000 cheque that comes with it.
A chronicle of two sisters, a writer struggling with relationships and a classical pianist who wants nothing more than to die, the novel beat out a strong list of contenders including André Alexis (Pastoral), Steven Galloway (The Confabulist), K.D. Miller (the story collection All Saints) and Carrie Snyder (Girl Runner).
"Toews manages to marry humour and grief so expertly that the most unbearable sadness is tempered by laughter," read the jury's citation. "Reading All My Puny Sorrows is an unforgettable experience."
A winner of the same award in 2008 for her novel The Flying Troutmans, Toews is also a finalist (and anecdotal favourite) for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the winner of which will be announced on Monday.
More interesting were the winners of the four body-of-work awards, including the inaugural $25,000 Latner Writers' Trust Poetry Prize, which was awarded to Ken Babstock. Praised by the jury as being "in a league of his own," Babstock, who currently lives in Vancouver, is a previous recipient of the Griffin Poetry Prize and recently published his fifth collection, On Malice.
"It's a massive honour," Babstock said. "I cannot imagine how difficult a task it was for the jury. … It's a huge number of poets that have three or more solid books out," which is the minimum number to qualify for the prize. "I'm just happy that there's another [award] on the landscape to point to all the quality contemporary poetry produced in the country."
The $25,000 Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Award, which honours an author in mid-career, went to Winnipeg's Joan Thomas, whom the jury praised for her "profound understanding of the human condition."
"When I look at the list of people who have won it in the past it's just amazing writers that I admire so much," said Thomas of a prize that in recent years has gone to Lisa Moore, Nino Ricci and Miriam Toews. "It means an awful lot to me to be in their company."
Thomas published her first novel only in 2008 and the jury wrote that they "anticipate the richness of her future endeavours."
"I do find that really encouraging," said Thomas, whose new novel, The Opening Sky, is a finalist for the Governor-General's Literary Award for Fiction. "After [publishing] a book you do struggle to find the impetus to write another book. You have to write each book as if it's your only book, as if it's your first book, and it takes a huge amount of energy to launch into another one."
Other winners included Cary Fagan, described by the jury as "a master storyteller," who took home the $20,000 Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People, and the poet and novelist Susan Musgrave, this year's recipient of the Matt Cohen Award: In Celebration of a Writing Life, which provides $20,000 to an author "dedicated to writing as a primary pursuit."
Finally, the winner of the $10,000 Writers' Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize, for best short story published by an emerging writer in a Canadian literary journal or magazine, went to Tyler Keevil for his story Sealskin, originally published in The New Orphic Review.