In the literary world, autumn is Scotia Bank Giller Prize season.
This year, before the short-list was even announced, many thought that Joseph Boyden’s novel The Orenda — the story of Jesuit priests descending upon the Huron settlements in the 17th Century — would take home the prize.
However, despite being long listed for the Giller, and consistently topping bestseller lists since its publication, The Orenda didn’t even make it onto this year’s short-list. Some speculate that Boyden was left out because his second novel Through Black Spruce won the Giller in 2008.
I think it’s more likely that the jury found The Orenda overloaded with graphic violence. All told, about 100 pages of the book describe Iroquois and Huron torture methods such as burning, flaying and even eating severed tongues and fingers in front of victims.
There’s no doubt Boyden tells an important Canadian story, exploring the effects of universal suffering on the human spirit – known to the Huron as the Orenda. What we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder seems to have affected almost all of the Iroquois, Hurons and Jesuit priests in this time of open warfare, disease and dismantling of a people’s culture and religion.
Cataract City by Craig Davidson was another novel expected by many to be a Giller winner. Set in modern day Ontario, it highlights the results of oppression started in The Orenda. In Cataract City, an entire town has its spirits slowly crushed by the harsh reality of working blue-collar jobs in a town polluted by factories, and rife with racism, illegal fight clubs and smuggling operations.
Davidson is known for his macho stories: Cataract City begins with his main character serving his last day in prison for killing a man, and features plenty of beat up, bruised and bloodied bodies. So much so, that while I appreciated this finely-written story as much as I did The Orenda, I wished the novel’s final bell had rung a bit earlier. J
ust this week, Lynn Coady’s short story collection Hellgoing was announced as the winner of this year’s Giller. Its wide-ranging and attention-grabbing stories are a far cry from the violence-laden tales of The Orenda and Cataract City, which may be just the reason it took home the grand prize.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader living in Penticton.