Canadian fiction had a fresh aspect in 2011. As nominations for the major awards were announced, a remarkable number of little-known writers emerged into the spotlight.

Writers' Trust judge Rabindranath Maharaj remarked on the innovative writing juries were seeing in a September interview.

"Four out five names on this list, they were unrecognizable writers in Canadian literature. I don’t know why that is so — if it’s a coincidence or what," he said.

Literary juries typically read upwards of 120 books before choosing a short list of six or seven works of fiction for national honours such as the Writers' Trust awards, the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award. For most jurors, it's a question of treating each book as a blank slate. Though the lyricism of Michael Ondaatje (a 2011 Giller nominee for The Cat's Table) or the exotic realism of M.G. Vassanji might grab critical readers early, each nomination list this year uncovered new finds.

Two writers who garnered the greatest acclaim were Victoria-based Esi Edugyan and Vancouver Island native Patrick deWitt, both of whom were shortlisted for Britain’s Man Booker Prize. By the end of literary awards season, Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues had won the Giller Prize, while deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers had taken the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Award for fiction. 

But there were also other fresh voices that emerged in 2011:

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Lynn Coady gives a goon's eye view in The Antagonist. (CBC)

Book: The Antagonist, shortlisted for the Giller Prize. 

Author: Lynn Coady, based in Edmonton; previous book, Strange Heaven (1998), was nominated for a Governor General's Literary Award.

The Antagonist offers a sharp, comic portrait of a former hockey enforcer with a history of violence, who believes his emotional life has never been treated seriously because he's always been seen as a goon. The book takes the form of emails written by Gordon (Rank) Rankin to a former university pal who has published a novel featuring a huge, violence-prone character very like Rank himself. Central to Rank's story are a couple of incidents from his early life: the death of his mother and a punch he threw in the parking lot of his father’s ice cream franchise. Coady deftly describes the confusion of a teen suddenly given a man’s body, with no idea how to control it, and the alternately goofy and tragic trajectory of male relationships. What makes the novel sing are her humorous descriptions of Rank’s world, from the funk of college digs to his banty cock of a father. 

Book: The Beggar’s Garden, winner of the Vancouver Book Award; shortlisted for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

Author: Michael Christie, based in Thunder Bay, Ont.; a former professional skateboarder and homeless outreach worker.

Michael Christie does the short story genre proud with his tales set among the indigent of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Never judgmental, he enters the world of a grandfather who leaves gifts in dumpsters for his homeless grandson and that of a developmentally delayed man relying on a friend who is not entirely trustworthy. Christie highlights the fertile imaginations of those with borderline personalities as well as the amazing survival skills of drug addicts or the people who run thrift stores. He finds warmth and human connection among needle-strewn parks and basement apartments, while his characters are never predictable and often much happier than we give them credit for.

Book: A Cold Night for Alligators, Random House New Face of Fiction.

Author: Nick Crowe, based in Toronto; first-time novelist.

A fast-paced story, A Cold Night for Alligators begins with our hero Jasper pushed in front of a subway train and waking up months later to find his job on the line, his girlfriend scooped up by a new man and the crazy guy who pushed him set for trial. Somewhat at a loss, Jasper receives a mysterious call on his birthday that sends him south in search of his brother, who went missing 10 years ago. Accompanying him are a Christian former footballer and his friend Duane, who just wants to drink and fish. The odyssey comes to a head in a Florida swamp, where Jasper's uncle is a little too good with a gun and his brother Coleman is listening to a voice in his head. The novel is a comic romp and comparisons to the work of Carl Hiaasen (Star Island) are inevitable, right down to a character who prefers the company of alligators to that of people.

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Dirty Feet was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. (McGill-Queen’s University Press)

Book: Dirty Feet, shortlisted for the 2011 Governor General's Literary Award and France’s Prix Goncourt.

Author: Edem Awumey, a Montrealer born in Togo in 1975.

In his second novel, Awumey explores the nature of exile through the story of Askia, an illegal immigrant eking out a living as a Paris taxi driver. This is not the Paris of romantic strolls and the Eiffel Tower. It's the one filled with dark alleys and back rooms, where old animosities play out through bombings and assassinations. Askia seeks his father, who disappeared years ago in his hazy African past, yet also seems to inhabit the streets of the French capital. He's drawn to Olia, a young Bulgarian photographer who claims to have seen his father. The backstory Askia offers has many gaps, reflecting the parts of his past he refuses to face. Awumey’s economical, elegiac portraits of the disenfranchised and permanently homeless — translated by Governor General's Award-winner Lazer Lederhendler — paint a vivid picture of the people around us who live life on the margins.  

Book: Every Time We Say Goodbye, Random House New Face of Fiction 

Author: Jamie Zeppa, Sault Ste. Marie-raised, Toronto-based; previous, non-fiction work includes Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan.

Set mainly in Sault Ste. Marie, Every Time We Say Goodbye follows three generations of Turner children as they struggle to grow up separated from their parents. In the 1940s, Grace Turner is a dreamy girl who cannot relate to the world after the death of her mother — until she becomes a  mother herself. In the 1960s, Dean Turner is a restless young man with a reputation for impulsive decisions that get him into trouble. In the 1970s, his children are raised by their grandparents, but hope for a reunion with their father or the mother they don't remember. The stories convey a sense of family life that is not fully realized, but they are never tragic. Zeppa writes cogently from the child’s view and accurately portrays the rift between generations. Each of the characters is distinctly drawn, warts and all, which bodes well for Zeppa's further forays into fiction.

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Touch, by Alexi Zentner, weaves old myths with a tale from the Canadian frontier. (Alfred A. Knopf Canada)

Book: Touch, shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Awards, Flahery-Dunnan First Novel Prize.

Author: Alexi Zentner, born and raised in Kitchener, Ont.; currently based in Ithaca, NY.

Touch combines the emotional realism of loss with a myth-soaked story about ancestors in a northern boom-town, trying to carve a life out of the forest. Anglican priest Stephen has returned to Sawgamet, the northern B.C. mining and logging town founded by his grandfather. As he sits by the bedside of his dying mother, Stephen remembers the stories about his grandfather – involving a singing dog, a golden caribou and the mysterious shape-shifter who lurks in the woods. How his grandfather met his wife is the stuff of legend. Stephen’s father also looms larger than life in his memory: all too mortal, he was pulled beneath the ice attempting to rescue Marie, his daughter and Stephen’s sister. Touch is shot through with the beauty and savagery of nature, like the foundation myth for Canada itself.