Eight years spent immersed in ancient Greece on a long shot has paid off handsomely for British Columbia writer Annabel Lyon, whose novel The Golden Mean won a unique literary trifecta yesterday with the announcement of the finalists for this year's Governor-General's Literary Awards.
Lyon's first novel written for adults, The Golden Mean is the only one in a crowded season to appear on the short lists for the three major fiction awards to be presented next month, including the Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
A mother of two young children, with a philosophy degree, Lyon described the news as "wonderful and kind of stunning" in an interview from her New Westminster, B.C., home yesterday. She said she began writing the novel immediately following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which sent her thoughts back to Aristotle.
"I picked up the Nicomachean Ethics after that and started reading," she said. "The reason I keep coming back to him is that he does seem so resonant with contemporary times. ... It continues to feel relevant, after all this time, 2,300 years later."
Clearly all the judges agree. "In this glorious balancing act of a book, Aristotle emerges as a man both brilliant and blind, immersed in life but terrified of living," according to a statement released by the three-person panel responsible for selecting a finalist for the Governor-General's Award.
One of three historical novels nominated for the fiction award, The Golden Mean attempts to "give Aristotle back to people" through fiction, according to Lyon. "My project was to make him known to people so I didn't want to warp him too much," she said. "I didn't want to make him something he wasn't. I wanted to keep him as true as I could so people reading would understand what he accomplished.
The Governor-General's Award jury also agreed with their Writers' Trust counterparts on the quality of Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness, also naming it as a finalist. Because of the author's decision to withdraw from the 2009 Giller competition, no one will know whether or not that high-profile jury felt the same way.
Apart from admiring The Golden Mean, the one opinion that united judges for the three awards was that Margaret Atwood's bestselling The Year of the Flood did not deserve a place among any of the finalists.
"I don't think I better comment on that," said writer Judy Fong Bates, one of three jurors for the English-language fiction award. (Writing in the current issue of the Literary Review of Canada, science-fiction author Robert Charles Wilson was more forthright, saying Atwood's novel "reads like a novel of substance gene-spliced with a back issue of MAD magazine.")
The Governor-General's fiction jury made its own statement by nominating Michael Crummey's Newfoundland novel Galore for an award. Overlooked by the other previous two juries the novel is "a gorgeous and mysterious whale of a book - part multigenerational love story, part riff on the Bible, and part tall tale," according to the jury.
The jury revealed a strong taste for historical fiction by nominating Canadian-born, London-based novelist Kate Pullinger for The Mistress of Nothing, a maid's-eye view of the British Empire at its height in 19th-century Africa, saying "the character of the maid, Sally Naldrett, has one of the most distinctive and memorable voices in recent literature."
And it made way for short fiction written by anyone other than Alice Munro by giving the nod to Deborah Willis of Victoria, author of Vanishing and Other Stories. The 14 stories "startle, exhilarate and radiate with piercing insights," according to the jury.
The list of six nominees for the non-fiction award is notable for the presence of A Place Within: Rediscovering India by M.G. Vassanji, best known as a novelist and two-time Giller Prize winner. Eric Siblin's The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, already nominated for the Writers' Trust non-fiction award, also made the short list.
GG Literary Awards nominees (English-language)
Michael Crummey, Galore (Doubleday Canada)
Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean (Random House Canada)
Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness (McClelland & Stewart)
Kate Pullinger, The Mistress of Nothing (McArthur & Company)
Deborah Willis, Vanishing and Other Stories (Penguin Group Canada)
David W. McFadden, Be Calm, Honey (Mansfield Press)
Philip Kevin Paul, Little Hunger (Nightwood Editions)
Sina Queyras, Expressway (Coach House Books)
Carmine Starnino, This Way Out (Gaspereau Press)
David Zieroth, The Fly in Autumn (Harbour Publishing)
Beverley Cooper, Innocence Lost: A Play about Steven Truscott (Scirocco Drama / J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing Group)
Kevin Loring, Where the Blood Mixes (Talonbooks)
Joan MacLeod, Another Home Invasion (Talonbooks)
Hannah Moscovitch, East of Berlin (Playwrights Canada Press)
Michael Nathanson, Talk (Playwrights Canada Press)
Randall Hansen, Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-45 (Doubleday Canada)
Trevor Herriot, Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds (Phyllis Bruce Books)
Eric S. Margolis, American Raj: Liberation or Domination? (Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World) (Key Porter Books)
Eric Siblin, The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece (House of Anansi Press)
M.G. Vassanji, A Place Within: Rediscovering India (Doubleday Canada)