At a luncheon ceremony at the Windsor Arms Hotel this Monday (Feb. 27), the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction will give $25,000 to the Canadian author “whose book best combines a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style and a subtlety of thought and perception.” The safe money this year is on tragedy: all four of the nominated books deal with death or destruction. For those looking to wager further, here’s a guide to the four nominees and my assessment of their chances.

The book: Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917 (Harper Collins). The author: Halifax-born, New York–based writer and radio producer Laura M. Mac Donald. The tragedy: In 1917, a munitions ship stocked up with explosives ran into Halifax harbour and exploded, killing 2,000, injuring 10,000 and leaving two miles of the city in ruin. The redemption: Halifax rallied heroic relief and rebuilding efforts and, in their remembrance of the tragedy, locals demonstrate how we “accept the unacceptable, bear the unbearable, keep going.” Elegance of style: “The air was the color of bruised plums.” Subtlety of thought and perception: “It is funny how, more than 120 years after Edison invented the incandescent bulb, something as simple as turning on a light switch can still fill us with awe.” Why it could win: This is CanLit, after all, and a slice of devastation set on the East Coast marking a pivotal moment in Canadian history ought to be pretty tempting to the jury. Also, for what it’s worth, Mac Donald is the only woman among this year’s nominees. Why it may not win: Though there are plenty of vivid character details, the tragedy is not personal to the author. Judging by their other selections, this jury seems to have a soft spot for familial loss. Odds: 3-1.

The book: The Boys: Or, Waiting for the Electrician’s Daughter (Gaspereau Press). The author: Hamilton poet John Terpstra. The tragedy: All three of the author’s wife’s brothers suffer from muscular dystrophy and die in their early twenties. The redemption: Though wheelchair bound and facing certain death, the boys are full of life. Elegance of style: “There are many ways to enter, and inside is where they live, where she has always lived.” Subtlety of thought and perception: “Only [death] didn’t get there first. First there was the attraction that brought the two human beings together, that sparked the fire by which the third was created. All death could do was watch, and long, and wish. / And tamper with tiny flame.” Why it could win: As a lyric piece presented in an unconventional format, this would be a chance for the jury to show off its sophistication by rewarding a “difficult book” from a small press. Why it may not win: It’s a heartbreaking and heartwarming story of the human spirit triumphing over adversity, written in a style completely alienating to those who like such stories. Odds: 14-1.

The book: The Greek for Love: A Memoir of Corfu (Random House Canada). The author: Toronto Life food critic James Chatto. The tragedy: Just as the author and his wife have adapted to life in their adopted home in a Corfu village, their son is diagnosed with — and dies of — leukemia. The redemption: Through time, the joy of their memories conquers the sorrow of their loss. Elegance of style: “The tall white and purple irises were fading under the almond trees — the air was no longer heavy with their extraordinary incense — but now the whole hillside was covered in bright red poppies, thousands of them, so many they seemed to emit a scarlet glow in the early morning sunshine.” Subtlety of thought and perception: “But the wall beneath me was real and tangible. It would outlast me, and one day Joe would bring his children here and show them the house where he grew up, the patio where he watched the ants and played with his cars, the small rhombus of land with its eleven olive trees where his brother’s ashes are buried.” Why it could win: This is the only book on the list most people have heard of and Chatto, a prominent media figure in Toronto, would be a popular choice with critics. Why it may not win: I can’t think of a reason. Odds: 2-5.

The book: Dead Man in Paradise (Douglas and McIntyre). The author: Vancouver magazine journalist J.B. MacKinnon. The tragedy: The author’s uncle, a missionary priest, is martyred under mysterious circumstances in the Dominican Republic in 1965. The redemption: None, unless you count an astonishingly good book that wraps together travelogue, geopolitics, murder mystery, personal memoir and meditations on the nature of truth, faith, justice and forgiveness. Elegance of style: “There are flies, and as long as there are flies, there will be lizards.” Subtlety of thought and perception: “…when he speaks it is directly to the part of me that wants so badly to give pardon … Roberto’s eyes, far more than his words, ask me to guard against forgiveness given too easily. There is a hesitation within him, as though he’s afraid the price of understanding is the ruination of something pure.” Why it could win: Three of the previous four winners have been travelogue/memoirs or family memoirs, and this is both of those and more. Also, it’s the best book nominated. Why it may not win: Judging by his photograph on the book overleaf, the author is about 17 years old. Odds: 9-2.

Originally published in Eye Weekly February 23, 2006. 

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