The new Canadian literary odd couple

The approval of literary juries isn’t all that links Patrick Dewitt and Esi Edugyan
The new Canadian literary odd couple
Steven Price, Danny Palmerlee, Getty Images; Photo Illustration By Sarah Mackinnon

Young, talented, recently jolted from obscurity to the media spotlight and seemingly joined at the hip: the Canadian literary odd couple of Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan are having quite the year. DeWitt and Edugyan, who have never met, are usually mentioned in that order because of the tendency of literary prizes to list nominees alphabetically, and award nominations—where the pair are both a remarkable four for four—are what have put them in the news. They have been shortlisted for all three major Canadian fiction honours, the $40,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the $25,000 Governor General’s Literary Award and the $25,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, as well as the Man Booker Prize. The most prestigious literary award in the English-language world, the Booker is also one of the richest: $80,000.

But the approval of literary juries is not all that links Edugyan and deWitt. Their books—whether about an African-German jazzman in occupied Paris (Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues) or a fraternal pair of American killers on the hunt during the California Gold Rush (The Sisters Brothers by deWitt)—could scarcely be less Canadian in setting and characters: the most talked-about new Canadian novels in years are not CanLit as it once was and many still think it is. And their authors are almost as removed from the Canadian book world’s mainstream, something encapsulated in the startling fact that deWitt has never been in Toronto. Millions of other Canadians haven’t travelled to the centre of English-Canadian publishing either, of course, but it’s beyond likely that he’s the first of them to find himself on the Giller short list. DeWitt and Edugyan’s unusual twinship is set to last at least until Oct. 18, when one may be chosen as the Booker winner at the same London gala where the two Canadians will first meet. The Canadian prizes will announce their winners in November.

Regardless of distance—geographical, psychological or literary—deWitt and Edugyan are still writers as Canadian as they come. Born on Vancouver Island, deWitt, 36, switched homes frequently between British Columbia and California as his construction engineer father moved from project to project along the Pacific Coast; he now lives in Portland, Ore., with his American wife, Leslie, and their son Gustavo, 6. Edugyan, 33, the Calgary-born and raised daughter of Ghanian immigrants, lives in Victoria with her husband, poet Steven Price, and newborn daughter. Each wrote a first novel that critics admired, particularly in the U.S.—Edugyan’s The Second Life of Samuel Tyne was named by the New York Public Library as a Book to Remember in 2004, while Ablutions by deWitt was a 2009 New York Times Editors’ Choice book—but that created little stir among readers.

Or in their native land, a goal both writers longed to achieve. “My first book didn’t even have a Canadian publisher,” says deWitt, who came back to Canada on his own for a few years at age 17. “And that upset me, because I so wanted a readership up there.” Edugyan made more headway here with Samuel Tyne, which was a Knopf Canada New Face of Fiction title. But when Half-Blood Blues, slated for spring publication here with Key Porter Books, became caught up in the publisher’s bankruptcy proceedings, it was the possibility of her book not appearing in Canada that was most distressing. “I knew the novel wasn’t actually an ‘orphan,’ ” she says, because it was still coming out in Britain. “But not here? When you’re Canadian, you really want to be published at home.” Fortunately, publisher Thomas Allen & Son took over in time for a September release.

Second time around, it’s been a very different story for both. Critics in Britain, America and Canada have all been loud in praise of some exquisite prose—deWitt’s sly rendition of Eli Sisters’ charming 19th-century syntax, Edugyan’s jazz-derived cadences—and intriguing storylines. Horn player Hieronymous Falk desperately wants to be accepted into his German mother’s world, but the Nazis won’t let him, while Eli wants out of killing for hire, but cannot abandon brother Charlie. Two historical novels of blood and belonging—how very CanLit after all.