As the defenders are preparing for their first day of debate, I will try to give my two cents; what they are worth is another thing.
As some of you might know (others can see the reasons why here), I have only read three of the five novels in competition. My judgement is therefore partial. There has been a lot said on all the contenders in these past few weeks. However, I have not followed much of the discussion so far as did not want it to impact on my reading. I rarely look at reviews of books I intend to read in the near future so as not to influence my judgement. Neither was I able to follow the Civilians Read debate, held at The Keepin’ It Real Book Club, for the same reasons (I do not even know who won their debate!). I will try to do a bit of catch up in the next few days and will try to follow the Canada Reads debates.
All that to say that my judgement is only partial and not informed by other discussions. I was a bit disappointed by the chosen contenders, but at least, with the Canada Reads 2011’s format, they were chosen by the public. As a reader of Canadian literature I also voted, but I know that my choice was biased as I had only read a few of the novels. The selection criteria was “which novel do you think is an essential read”. However, from what I have gathered, this question is not part of the debate anymore. Something that seems quite important though is the element of Canadianness of the work. The gap between the two is quite wide, I think.
I am thinking about the three novels I have read: Unless by Carol Shields, The Birth House by Ami McKay and The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis, and I cannot choose which one I would like to win. I guess it does not really matter at this stage. The five novels have enjoyed a lot of publicity and have been discovered or rediscovered by the public, which is what Canada Reads is about; the rest is just about having a bit of fun.
I would be tempted to lean towards Unless by Carol Shields; it is Carol Shields after all! However, I read this novel a while ago and my choice might be more influenced by my recent reading of another of her novels, Larry’s Party, than by the worth of Unless itself. I remember Unless to be difficult to read, but in a good way. Its topic is universal, it is touching and well-written. I think it is also a novel that encompasses Canadianness well with its bilingual aspects (the narrator, Reta, is a French-English translator) and the Canadian background. It is driven by feminist ideas but also brings to the fore wider philosophical ideas. The more I think about it, the more I think Unless is an important contribution to literature in our modern society.
I think The Birth House is also a novel of literary merit with universal qualities to it. As I explain in my review, I see it as discussing the conflict between tradition and modernity. It also paints a lively picture of Nova Scotia at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, I have the feeling that it is a novel mostly aimed at women. The issues it raises should not be the concern of only women; however, I believe the way it is written might be more appealing to women than men, not to talk about its public reception: a book about homebirth.
As I said in my review tonight, I think The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis is an entertaining read that would captivate any non-Canadian reader, even though it is set in the political world of Ottawa. However, I feel that it does not have as much literary merit as the other two novels and, in a prize that is about literature, it is an important factor to consider.
These are my thoughts… Whoever wins, I am happy to have discovered works I might have never read otherwise. Good luck to all contenders!