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Judging six strong Canadian authors in contention for this year's Giller Prize, Sandra Martin, Andrew Gorham and John Barber debate the literary merits of a short list packed with love, betrayal, jealousy and myth – not to mention the occasional tooth extraction, hockey heavy and dank Paris flat.

Andrew Gorham Wow, what a reading list this was. Best in all the years I've been doing this panel. A brilliant first novel. A grand Canadian master in top form. Not one, but two Man Booker-nominated novels. On and on. I would be happy seeing any one these five books take home the Giller this year.

Oops, did I say five? Oddly, there are six on the short list this year. I'm not sure Zsuzsi Gartner's spirited collection of short stories, though deserving of the nod, will be at the top of the judges' picks. Each story on its own is like popping a Sour Patch Kids peach candy. Acidic, surprising, sweet, bold. But plow through a big bag in one sitting and your reading lips get puckered.

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John Barber Gartner is certainly the odd woman out in this list – hers being the only book of short stories, the only book whose setting is contemporary, and the only one that breaches the conventions of realism. Hers is easily the most radical and modern, and I think its presence as the sixth book on this semi-shortlist could be read as a statement on the formal conservatism of the otherwise impeccable five.

Sandra Martin Read separately, the Gartner stories are edgy and modern, but I found them a bit oppressive as a collection – too many sharp edges and brittle characters. Overall, though, the jury has chosen wisely. The novels resonate with the timeless virtues of good fiction: storytelling and character.

If I had to lose a book from the top five, I would drop The Antagonist by Lynn Coady. It is a riveting character study of Rank, the huge kid forced into being the heavy in hockey and in life, a role he hates. But it is also a fascinating look at creativity, what powers it, how a writer seduces and betrays real people in borrowing anecdotes and experiences to create character and plotlines. Coady has executed her novel extremely well – the voice is letter-perfect – but the themes of The Antagonist were overshadowed by the more powerful ones in the other novels.

AG What!? I loved this book. I actually think Coady stole some of her characters and plotlines from my past. I wonder if she spent any time around the universities of New Brunswick or B.C.? This is one of the first books I read that succinctly captures us Gen Xers as we are nudged reluctantly into middle age.

And Coady doesn't go easy on us; irreverent and lazy in our 20s, slumming it for kicks in seedy bars, blowing off school, fighting and drinking. And now, looking back, a bit embarrassed by our relentless childishness. But there's no real way to reconcile the past with what we want the past to be. That's Rank's problem. Mine too. What's done is done. For the record books, good or bad. And no rewriting will change it, much as Rank tries.

JB Andrew, we hardly knew you! But somehow you seem more human than Rank, with whom I am proud to say that I, despite many youthful misdeeds, could not identify. I think Coady was brave, as a woman, to attempt such an intimate portrait in testosterone poisoning, and ambitious to do it in the form of a monologue by a not very sympathetic narrator. Coady dissects the typical male "saint/whore" attitude toward women while implicitly constructing a curious inversion of her own. It's a kind of mythmaking posing as psychology.

No less interesting for that, but much less successful than a simpler novel like The Sisters Brothers, which wallows quite happily in well-known myths, and doesn't dive too deep into its own nasty narrator's inner thoughts and motivations.

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SM Au contraire. Rank is an intensely vulnerable and increasingly sympathetic character, as drawn by an empathetic female novelist.

AG Thank you, Sandra. I was feeling intensely vulnerable after John's vicious attack.

SM Well, I can't let that testosterone-poisoning comment go by without pointing out that the mother figures in both The Antagonist and The Sisters Brothers are saint-like in opposition to their brutal and tyrannical husbands. Despite its Wild West atmosphere, gold-rush backdrop and egregious brutality, The Sisters Brothers struck me as a novel about siblings and how birth order determines who gets to call the shots. The beauty of the novel emerges through the younger brother, his growing disaffection for killing as a vocation, and his emerging ability to question his older brother's authority.

AG Yes, the well-known trilogy of myths, all the way back to Shakespeare: drinkin', whorin' and killin'. Giddy-up. Is that what it takes to get a Booker nom these days – or a Giller win?

JB More than a few Brit snobs sniffed at seeing such "readable" material elevated to the Booker list. The Sisters Brothers is notable as the closest thing to a pure genre book to be nominated for so many posh prizes, not to mention winning the Writers' Trust Prize. But in the end, it is what it is: generic. The bad guys become self-aware, semi-tamed good guys because that's the inviolable arc of the convention – not the result of any psychological or spiritual process. Can psychopaths be cured? Only in the realm of fantasy, I'm afraid.

SM Charlie, the older brother, may be a psychopath, but I don't think Eli, the younger one, belongs in that clinical category. I found The Sisters Brothers a zippy ride and I loved the cultural tidbits and the frontier medical procedures – amputations and tooth extractions. While the novel was engaging and visual – more like a screenplay than a novel, considering the speed with which I turned the pages – I was reminded too often of the novels of Cormac McCarthy, the dialogue of Elmore Leonard and the films of the Coen brothers. I'm all for readability, but its familiarity makes it a difficult choice for me.

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AG Nice. But, I feel, not deep enough for McCarthy, precise enough for Leonard, or funny enough for the Coens. More Zane Grey 2.0. HBO's Deadwood series (season one, of course) in written form. But a blast to read. A nice romp to stretch the legs and blow off some steam before settling into a very different book, Bezmozgis's The Free World. Oh, how I did not want to pick up this book. You could almost hear the movie voiceover: "A grand epic narrative of familial obligations, lost loves, sweeping across generations and continents, confronting the major political, spiritual and emotional upheaval of the 20th century." Ugh, I thought. Here we go. Thankfully, go I did.

JB There's no denying the ambition at play in The Free World – almost overweening for a first novel – nor its results. This is a bell-ringing introduction to what promises to be a dominating career for its author. Considered as a tome, it is the lightest imaginable, sparkling and ironic and beautifully modulated. It recalls Mordecai Richler, while being better than most Richler novels. But I'm always suspicious of the endlessly ironic: I want to know where an author comes down, whose side he's on when forced to declare. In dancing around that business, Bezmozgis can stumble into melodrama.

SM Hmm. I don't agree. The novel is ironic, tragic, funny, but I don't find it melodramatic. There are three perspectives here: Samuil, the patriarch; Alec, his philandering son; and Polina, the daughter-in-law. Each has a story separate from, but part of, the Krasnansky family saga. This is a huge, sprawling novel that is Tolstoyan in its ambition and accomplished in the way it meshes the ravages of history with the circumstances of real people's lives at a particular time – the migration of thousands and thousands of Soviet Jews in the fearsome but brave search for a better life. One of the things I liked was how Bezmozgis carried me back to Russia and forward in my imagination to the life these characters will have in Canada.

Speaking of travelling: What did you two think of Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table?

AG It was okay.

JB I thought it was pure magic. The comparison makes me realize what I missed in The Free World. Where Bezmozgis is scathing, Ondaatje is overwhelmingly generous with his characters. They exist in a redoubled romantic glow – seen both through the eyes of a boy let loose in an adult world, and through the memories of the perceptive adult (a writer, naturally) that he became. And what a crew they are. This is such a lovely work that it challenges the reader to think it slight or merely nostalgic – when in fact it is anything but. It achieves real depth in its apparent simplicity, and it is impeccably crafted.

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SM I'm tempted to use the G word when talking about Ondaatje. He never repeats himself in tone or voice or circumstance. Each novel is a surprise that makes me hold my breath as I enter the mesmerizing and lyrical world he has imagined. The Cat's Table, perhaps his most accessible novel, is no exception. I will read it again and again, for the characters – remember the shackled prisoner? – the poetic language and the intricacy of his asides. Still, there is something elusive and distanced about this novel, as indeed it must be, for the author is looking back as an adult at the boy he might once have been. I prefer feeling as though I am inside Ondaatje's characters.

AG The G word? God? Look, Ondaatje's talents are undeniable. And any attempt to elucidate his utter command of the written word would be an exercise in condensation. Loved the characters. Loved the writing – so measured, this time, so precise. Divisadero this is not. His seamless blending of semi-autobiographical recollection with inspired character creation and self-aware winks of meta-narrative projection.... Argh. See what I mean? Buy the book. Love the book. It's great. One qualm: the plot. A bit forgotten amid all the masterful writing, no?

JB I didn't miss it. For a "plotless" novel to be so compelling is quite an achievement.

SM That should have been a lower-case G, as in genius. ... How can it be plotless? There was a voyage from the past to the future, between childhood and adulthood, from a colony at the rim of empire to the imperial capital at its hub. The plot was life itself.

So who should win this year? I'm opting for Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. Here's why: the movement, the distinctiveness with which she has drawn the characters, the way she reprises and echoes ideas and events. This is a novel that braids a tapestry of universal and timeless themes – love, betrayal, jealousy – and then ramps it up by interweaving the particularly gruesome brutalities of the 20th century: racism, anti-Semitism and genocide. And she turned the bigotry inside out by enticing American blacks into Berlin as a refuge from the racism of America – the country that often thinks it single-handedly defeated the Nazis. Edugyan's writing isn't as polished as Ondaatje's, but this novel delivered a punch that left me reeling.

AG It was my favourite, if only because the subject matter was so new to me. Edugyan did her homework. She's a new voice, a determined voice on the scene, ready and willing to step out of CanLit tropes and narratives and shine light on the near-ignored plight of blacks during the Second World War. I was in those dank flats, decrepit recording studios and haunted, abandoned streets. I rooted for the gang. I cared what would happen.

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Should she win the Giller? Certainly. But Ondaatje will. It's the safer and, likely, the right choice. I've always been a bit reckless (my Gen X years, don't you know).

JB I hate to be a party-pooper, because I really enjoyed Half-Blood Blues. But reading it, I felt myself revisiting a lot of other work. Is there a Hitler Channel on television yet? It seems like there should be. That said, history revealed through the eyes of its outcasts is appealing to contemporary readers – and few could be more outcast than black jazz musicians in Nazi Germany. What makes this book more than a skillfully rendered historical travelogue is that it is ultimately (and very powerfully) about the tragic necessity of making art.

But if I were to choose between two books that both included the same (probably apocryphal) anecdote about Sidney Bechet fighting a duel on the streets of Paris, I'd pick The Cat's Table.

SM Ondaatje would be fine with me, but I think it's Edugyan's turn this year. I'm ready to toast them all. Who's buying?

AG Jack Rabinovitch, as usual.


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The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

Hulking misfit and one-time violent offender Gordon (Rank) Rankin seeks revenge against a former friend who, in Rank's eyes, defamed him in a novel based partly on their youthful experiences. The Antagonist evolves into a tortured autobiography in which the misunderstood hero comes to terms with his troubled past.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner

Set mainly in a surreal version of modern Vancouver, these 10 stories describe absurdly unnatural events – an angelic intercession into the lives of suburban children; a mountain that swallows houses; street protests eerily prophetic of the Occupy movement – that illuminate and satirize the obsessions of contemporary society.

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

A solitary 11-year-old boy takes a voyage from Sri Lanka to England and a reunion with the mother he hasn't seen for years. Michael Ondaatje seats his boy protagonist at the ship's Cat's Table for dinners each night, the lowliest place in the social order, but with the most interesting assortment of characters. Years later, the narrator looks back on a 21-day voyage that shaped his life.

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

An ironic recasting of Exodus, set in Rome in the summer of 1978. Three generations of the Krasnansky family, having abandoned their old life in Latvia, are stuck in immigration limbo, as they jostle and lobby for entry visas to a new country and a new life. Bezmozgis plunges readers into their messy family life against the backdrop a major migration of recent history.

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

The Man Booker-nominated novel Half-Blood Blues features a jazz band in the libertine Berlin of the early 1930s. When Hitler comes to power, jazz becomes decadent and the group, which includes blacks, Jews and "subversives," take refuge in Paris, arriving just ahead of the invading Germans. Fifty years later, the survivors reunite to compare scars, mostly emotional.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Man Booker-nominated novel is about two brothers who are assassins for hire. It follows them as they traverse gold-rush California amid rivers of blood aiming to kill an obscure prospector. The plan shifts and fate twists as the brothers reach San Francisco and join in on gold rush.

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