Books by Sarah Bernstein, Eleanor Catton, Kevin Chong, Dionne Irving and CS Richardson have been shortlisted for the 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
The $100,000 prize is the biggest in Canadian literature.
The winner will be revealed on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023.
The ceremony will be broadcast on CBC TV, CBC Gem, CBC Listen and CBC Radio starting at 9:00 p.m. local time (11:30 AT/12 midnight NT). It will also be streamed online at CBC Books and YouTube.
Rick Mercer returns to host the broadcast for the fourth time. He previously hosted in 2014, 2015 and 2019.
Mercer rose to fame starring on CBC’s long-running series This Hour Has 22 Minutes. He was also the host of The Rick Mercer Report for 15 seasons. His newest project is the TV show Comedy Night with Rick Mercer, which is now available on CBC Gem. He is also an author, having penned the memoirs Talking to Canadians and The Road Years.
Last year’s winner was Suzette Mayr for her novel The Sleeping Car Porter.
Other past Giller Prize winners include Omar El Akkad for What Strange Paradise, Souvankham Thammavongsa for How to Pronounce Knife, Esi Edugyan for Washington Black, Michael Redhill for Bellevue Square, Margaret Atwood for Alias Grace, Mordecai Richler for Barney’s Version, Alice Munro for Runaway, André Alexis for Fifteen Dogs and Madeleine Thien for Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
Toronto businessman Jack Rabinovitch founded the prize in honour of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller, in 1994. Rabinovitch died in 2017 at the age of 87.
Canadian poet and fiction writer Ian Williams is chairing the five-person jury this year. Joining him are Canadian authors Sharon Bala, Brian Thomas Isaac and international authors Rebecca Makkai and Neel Mukherjee. Publishers submitted 145 titles for consideration, which was narrowed down to a 12-title longlist before the reveal of the five-book shortlist.
The Next Chapter11:42Anyone’s Giller: Ryan B. Patrick breaks down the finalists for the prestigious literary prize
You can learn more about the shortlisted books and authors below.
Study for Obedience explores themes of guilt, abuse and prejudice through the eyes of its unreliable narrator. In it, a woman leaves her hometown to move to a “remote northern country” to be a housekeeper for her brother, whose wife recently decided to leave him. Soon after her arrival the community is struck by unusual events from collective bovine hysteria to a potato blight. When the locals direct their growing suspicions of incomers at her, their hostility grows more palpable.
“She can’t imagine what a life should be or what a life should look like. In the first instance, she looks to her family to tell her how to be, and then as she gets older, she has invested a lot, although she doesn’t talk about it very much, in her attempt to have a career as a journalist,” Bernstein said in an interview with The Next Chapter.
She can’t imagine what a life should be or what a life should look like.– Sarah Bernstein
“I was thinking a bit about what it means when you invest so much in your personality, in a career that feels like a vocation, but you can’t make it in that career or you can’t get a kind of security in that. She ends up leaving it — and that too doesn’t give shape to her life. That’s partly why she goes back to live with her brother, because she’s still looking for that external validation, for the world to press against her and create a shape for her rather than vice versa.”
Study for Obedience is also shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize.
Bernstein is a Montreal-born author and creative writing teacher. Her other books include her 2021 novel The Coming Bad Days and her collection of prose poems Now Comes the Lightning. Bernstein was named one of Granta’s best young British novelists in 2023. She currently lives in Scotland.
From the book:
It was the year the sow eradicated her piglets. It was a swift and menacing time. One of the local dogs was having a phantom pregnancy. Things were leaving one place and showing up in another. It was springtime when I arrived in the country, an east wind blowing, an uncanny wind as it turned out. Certain things began to arise. The pigs came later though not much, and even if I had only recently arrived, had no livestock-caretaking responsibilities, had only been in to look, safely on one side of the electric fence, I knew they were right to hold me responsible. But all that as I said came later.
Giller Prize jury citation: “The modernist experiment continues to burn incandescently in Sarah Bernstein’s slim novel, Study for Obedience. Bernstein asks the indelible question: what does a culture of subjugation, erasure, and dismissal of women produce? In this book, equal parts poisoned and sympathetic, Bernstein’s unnamed protagonist goes about exacting, in shockingly twisted ways, the price of all that the world has withheld from her. The prose refracts Javier Marias sometimes, at other times Samuel Beckett. It’s an unexpected and fanged book, and its own studied withholdings create a powerful mesmeric effect.”
It’s an unexpected and fanged book, and its own studied withholdings create a powerful mesmeric effect.– Giller Prize jury
The Next Chapter12:46Sarah Bernstein’s Study for Obedience explores power and complicity
Birnam Wood is an engaging eco-thriller set in the middle of a landslide in New Zealand. Mira, the founder of a guerilla gardening collective that plants crops amid other criminal environmental activities, sets her sights on an evacuated farm as a way out of financial ruin. The only problem is the American billionaire Robert Lemoine has already laid claim to it as his end-of-the-world lair. After the same thing for polar opposite reasons, their paths cross and Robert makes Mira an offer that would stave off her financial concerns for good. The question is: can she trust him?
“I wanted to write a novel that wasn’t burdened by scores that I wanted to settle or anything like that, but instead would be light enough on its feet that it would be able to take the reader on their own adventure, and give them a good time,” she said in an interview on Writers & Company.
Eleanor Catton is a London, Ont.-born New Zealand author. She won the 2013 Booker Prize for fiction and the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction for her second novel, The Luminaries.
From the book:
The Korowai Pass had been closed since the end of the summer, when a spate of shallow earthquakes triggered a landslide that buried a stretch of the highway in rubble, killing five, and sending a long-haul transport truck over a precipice where it skimmed a power line, ploughed a channel down the mountainside, and then exploded on a viaduct below. It was weeks before the dead could be safely recovered and the extent of the damage properly assessed; by this time the temperature was dropping, and the days shortening fast. Nothing could be done before the spring. The road was cordoned off on either side of the mountains, and traffic diverted — to the west, around the far shores of Lake Korowai, and to the east, through a patchwork of farmland and across the braided rivers that flowed down over the plains towards the sea.
Giller Prize jury citation: “Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood is a rare gem, a novel that is a page-turning thriller and a weighty exploration of climate catastrophe and capitalism. Catton weaves a tale of unlikely allies: an idealistic crew of guerrilla gardeners and an inscrutable doomsteading billionaire. This is a satire about political and generational divides that pokes gentle fun at the characters’ foibles, exposing the hypocrisy on all sides. Catton has her finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist and the novel is aptly riven with anxiety. Online surveillance, income inequality, natural disasters, ecological collapse – whatever keeps you up at night, it’s all here. But at its heart, this is a book about friendship and all the ways we try and fail, and try again, to care for each other. With Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton has penned an instant classic.”
Catton has her finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist and the novel is aptly riven with anxiety.– Giller Prize jury
Writers and Company59:02Booker winner Eleanor Catton’s new novel, Birnam Wood, is a moral thriller for our times
The Double Life of Benson Yu recounts the difficult adolescence of the titular character growing up in a housing project in 1980s Chinatown. The story takes a metafictional twist, when Yu’s grip on memory and reality falters. The unique structure provides a layered and poignant look into how we come to terms with who we are, what happened to us as children and that finding hope and healing lies in whether we choose to suppress or process our experiences.
“In many ways, [this novel is] very personal. It’s probably the darkest book I’ve ever written. It was written during the lockdown period of the pandemic, so spring of 2020. In the months preceding, I saw my grandmother pass away, the woman who partially raised me. I think in that time of uncertainty, I was looking for some sort of mechanism to control things,” he said in an interview on The Next Chapter.
I also wrote about things that have been on my mind for awhile, like masculinity and male fragility and the way a lot of us are reconsidering our relationships that we’ve had with mentor figures in the past.– Kevin Chong
“But as I wrote this story, I wrote about isolation and losing control. I also wrote about things that have been on my mind for awhile, like masculinity and male fragility and the way a lot of us are reconsidering our relationships that we’ve had with mentor figures in the past.”
Kevin Chong is a Vancouver-based writer and associate professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. His other books include the nonfiction book Northern Dancer and fiction titles like The Plague and Beauty Plus Pity. Chong was announced as one of the jurors for the 2024 CBC Short Story Prize. He was longlisted for the CBC Nonfiction Prize twice, in 2015 for Empty Houses and in 2020 for White Space.
From the book:
A few days after I receive that noxious letter from C., the boy appears for the first time. The picture fills my eyes, and the most expedient way to clear them is by writing it down. I see the boy, on the street, cowering behind his grandmother. That’s his default pose. He’s holding a fold-up cart. His ailing poh-poh nudges him forward. Up until a month ago the old woman pulled the two-wheeled cart herself. Then, one morning, after she’d been coughing through the night, she made the boy do it. On that initial outing, as they embarked on their errand running, she made a point of moving at her typically brisk pace. “It’s just my hand,” she said in Cantonese, with a village accent she used only around family, like a pair of ugly slippers. “It hurts, that’s all. It’ll be fine tomorrow.” But then she asked him to pull the cart again the next day.
Giller Prize jury citation: “Kevin Chong’s The Double Life of Benson Yu is an ambitious, metafictional novel about a boy, Benny, and the man he becomes. Set against a comic book world, it reveals how we are all simultaneously heroes and villains of our own lives, often working against our best intentions. A young, poor boy, Benny, loses his grandmother and must fend for himself in an apartment in Chinatown until social services intervenes. At the heart of the novel is the issue of trust. Who can we trust? What institutions? Can we trust ourselves? Our stories? But the truth is in the story somewhere. Chong sucks us into a vortical, troubling question of the past decade, a question played out politically but also in our personal lives: how can we distinguish truth from fiction?”
At the heart of the novel is the issue of trust. Who can we trust? What institutions? Can we trust ourselves? Our stories? But the truth is in the story somewhere.– Giller Prize jury
The Next Chapter16:05Kevin Chong exposes the long-lasting effects of abuse in his metafiction tale, The Double Life of Benson Yu
Set across the United States, Jamaica and Europe from the 1950s to present day, The Islands details the migration stories of Jamaican women and their descendants. Each short story explores colonialism and its impact as women experience the on-going tensions between identity and the place they long to call home.
“I think that I just had not seen these stories told necessarily, and these stories were very important to me,” she said in an interview on The Next Chapter. “In some ways, it’s why it took such a long time to write the book, because I think in my heart in some way I was like, ‘These are stories that are very important to me, but I don’t know if anyone else wants to read them.'”
Dionne Irving is a writer and creative writing teacher from Toronto. She released her first novel, Quint, in 2021 and her work has been featured in journals and magazines like LitHub, Missouri Review and New Delta Review. The Islands is her debut short story collection.
From the book:
You will spend your entire life selling — but this is the first time. So small, you barely reach the counter. You are given a stool. You are told if you work hard, there will be a reward. You are taught to make change. You are taught to make smiles at the customers. You are taught to cut yam, to chop pigs’ feet, to take hot patties from the hotter oven. The burns and scrapes and cuts will last through adulthood, will last beyond death. Injury will always remind you of what it means to work.
Giller Prize jury citation: “Heartbreaking, humorous, often disturbing, and always deeply human, Dionne Irving’s 10 linked stories in The Islands explore the struggle of diaspora Jamaicans to find belonging and connection in their adopted communities — to find home. The stories succinctly capture the remnants of postcolonial oppression — racist, sexist, or classist — that Jamaicans encounter in their new worlds. In several of her stories the characters — mostly women — encounter moments of unsettling disconnection between themselves and the people closest to them; characters in other stories find connection with the least probable acquaintances. Irving presents her many disparate characters, even the unlikeable ones, in an intimate, lucid style that keeps the Jamaican experience vivid and personal. These stories touch us and stay with us,” said the jury in their citation.
The stories succinctly capture the remnants of postcolonial oppression — racist, sexist, or classist — that Jamaicans encounter in their new worlds.– Giller Prize jury
The Next Chapter13:12Searching for home and belonging in The Islands
All the Colour In the World is a story of a young boy named Henry who discovers a passion for art which carries him through the many misadventures of his life in the 20th century. From his first set of colouring pencils he is gifted at his grandmother’s place to the worlds of academia, war and sweeping romance, Henry’s art stays alongside his enduring story.
“What I was trying to do with All the Colour In the World was basically bring non fiction to the fore, as opposed to it being a backdrop. I wanted to use nonfiction and, in particular, art and notions of philosophy and colour theory which would inform my protagonist’s life,” he said in an upcoming interview on The Next Chapter.
I wanted to use nonfiction and, in particular, art and notions of philosophy and colour theory which would inform my protagonist’s life.- CS Richardson
CS Richardson is a Toronto-based writer and award-winning book designer. His previous novels include The End of the Alphabet which won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book and The Emperor of Paris which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2012.
From the book:
Employing zuihitsu, a Japanese writing style characterized by both linked essays and disparate ideas, Sei Shōnagon considers her Pillow Book — a collection of anecdotes, musings about life as a courtier, favourite quotations, poetry, lists, daily affirmations — to be for her eyes only.
In Renaissance Italy such a personal almanac is known as a zibaldone: an informal miscellany containing everything from landscape sketches to currency exchange rates, medicinal recipes to family trees. The Florentine politician and merchant Giovanni Rucellai likens his to “a salad of many herbs.”
Giller Prize jury citation: “With stunning restraint and pathos, CS Richardson has given us a portrait of one man’s journey of the soul — across decades and continents, through loss and grief and hope. Both sweeping and minimalist, All the Colour in the World is Woolfian in its brushstrokes. Quiet moments of being are given as much weight as the chaos of war, and notes on the long history of art balance the depiction of one individual life. As much poetry and mosaic as it is a novel, with not a word out of place, this book is a triumph — a masterclass in how to paint an entire world.”
As much poetry and mosaic as it is a novel, with not a word out of place, this book is a triumph — a masterclass in how to paint an entire world.– Giller Prize jury
The Next Chapter5:52C.S. Richardson takes The Next Chapter Proust questionnaire