It was big news this week when the Man Booker Prize committee announced that Michael Ondaatje had won a “Golden” prize for his novel The English Patient, which the public voted the best work of fiction published in the past 50 years. That’s quite a tribute! Judge Kamila Shamsie said, "The English Patient is that rare novel which gets under your skin and insists you return to it time and again, always yielding a new surprise or delight. …It’s intricately (and rewardingly) structured, beautifully written, with great humanity."
Ondaatje, now a late-career writer, had many early moments of recognition – prizes that acknowledged his talent and suggested his future promise. One of those moments took place in 1976, when his historical novel Coming Through Slaughter, set in New Orleans in the early days of jazz, won the Books In Canada First Novel award. Now named the Amazon Canada First Novel award, that prize has identified literary greats in the infancy of their careers, including Rohinton Mistry, Madeleine Thien, Eleanor Catton, and Anne Michaels.
This year, the winner of the Amazon Canada First Novel prize is Michael Kaan, who was awarded $40,000 for his debut, The Water Beetles, a story on the timely subject of children separated from their parents by war -- in this case, the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. Other contenders for this year's award were The Boat People by Sharon Bala, The Bone Mother by David Demchuk, American War by Omar El Akkad, The Black Peacock by Rachel Manley, and Dazzle Patterns by Alison Watt.
Kaan describes The Water Beetles as “the first-person account of Chung-Man Leung, both as a twelve-year old boy and later as a much older man looking back on his experiences during the war. While the majority of the novel is a linear narrative of what happens to Chung-Man as the war unfolds in front of him, without access to any wider understanding of the war, there are certain short sections in which he, near the end of his life, looks back on how this period affected and continues to influence his perspective, even in small details."
The subject came to Kaan a few years after his father’s death in 2006, when he read the memoirs his father wrote decades before, while recuperating from cancer. “Although he mostly intended these to be about his mother, he largely ended up writing about the war and the period that is described in the novel,” Kaan says.
Receiving the Amazon Canada First Novel prize in May had a noticeable impact on sales of The Water Beetles. “Having been a finalist for other prizes previously, it is interesting how decisively winning, and not just being a finalist, matters in that regard,” Kaan says. The company of writers whose work he respects is another reward. Of the winners who preceded him, he mentions Gil Adamson as a particular influence. “The Outlander, which won in 2008, is a remarkable book. It is a haunting portrait of a woman lost in a landscape that, while her homeland, also becomes alien to her. I wish she would write another novel.”
This year, the Amazon Canada First Novel prize expanded its work of recognizing early-career authors of great promise. For the first time, writers between the ages of 13 and 17 were invited to apply for a youth award of $5,000, and Robin de Valk-Zaiss, 17, won for her story, "Robin Bird." Will the Man Booker committee award a special centenary prize for its hundredth anniversary, in 2068? Will Kaan or Valk-Zaiss be among the contenders? We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, congratulations to all.