Sarah Bernstein, a 36-year-old poet and novelist born in Montreal and now teaching literature and creative writing in Scotland, has won this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s largest award for fiction and one of the literary world’s most luxurious. The $100,000 prize for her novel Study for Obedience was presented Monday at a gala dinner in Toronto.
Unlike the other four finalists for the award, Bernstein was not present at the black-tie event. She accepted her sculpted glass trophy and the cheque that goes with it via a remote feed from her home in a small hamlet northeast of Ullapool in the Scottish Highlands. She gave birth to her first child, a daughter, two weeks ago.
Several charged after Scotiabank Giller Prize gala interrupted during televised bash
“I’m really privileged to have been afforded the opportunity to tell this story,” Ms. Bernstein said in her victory speech. “I think often now how it is more important than ever to support writers in material ways to tell the stories of their own people in their own ways, especially when their stories challenge dominant historical narratives.”
The ceremony emceed by Rick Mercer and broadcast live across the country was briefly interrupted twice by protesters.
Anti-Israel protesters jumped onstage carrying signs that read “Scotiabank Funds Genocide.” Mr. Mercer attempted to rip one of them from a protester’s hands.
The protesters have since been arrested, Giller spokesperson Robyn Mogil said.
Published by Knopf Canada, Study for Obedience is also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, an important British award given annually to a full-length novel in English. It is a story of a young woman who moves from the place of her birth to the remote northern country of her forebears to be housekeeper to her brother, whose wife has recently left him.
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Bernstein’s 208-page novel, her second, follows up the 2021 debut, The Coming Bad Days. In its review of Study for Obedience The Globe and Mail praised a “strange, unsettling and profoundly beguiling” book that is “entirely original; something ancient and unnervingly modern all at once.”
Of Study for Obedience, the Giller jury wrote in its citation, “The prose refracts Javier Marias sometimes, at other times Samuel Beckett. It’s an unexpected and fanged book, and its own studied withholdings create a powerful mesmeric effect.”
The jury was made up of Canadian authors Ian Williams (jury chair), Sharon Bala and Brian Thomas Isaac, and American author Rebecca Makkai and Indian-British writer Neel Mukherjee. They considered 145 submitted works, and last month put forward a shortlist whose other authors were Eleanor Catton, for Birnam Wood; Kevin Chong, for The Double Life of Benson Yu; Dionne Irving, for her collection of short stories The Islands; and CS Richardson, for All the Colour in the World.
This marked the 30th awarding of the Giller Prize, which was founded in 1994 by the businessman Jack Rabinovitch to honour his wife, literary journalist Doris Giller, who died the previous year. Rabinovitch died in 2017.
Among the more than 320 guests in the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel were federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan and former Ontario premier and current Canadian ambassador to the United Nations Bob Rae. Also on hand were actors Graham Greene, Allan Hawco and Sarah Polley.
Authors, naturally, were not in short supply. Former Giller winners such as Margaret Atwood, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Johanna Skibsrud and Vincent Lam dined on grilled beef tenderloin (or a vegetarian alternative) with Portobello mushroom ragout. Attendees sipped wine while watching a post-dinner presentation of videos on each of the finalists.
Also in the room was last year’s winner Suzette Mayr, whose career was boosted and whose calendar was filled after taking the Giller for The Sleeping Car Porter. “Suzette has been busy every single day in the past year with some commitment or another,” said Alana Wilcox, editorial director at Coach House Press.
Since 2006, according to the Giller Foundation, the average year-to-year spike in sales for a winning title is 543 per cent. The surge is known in the industry as the Giller Effect.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated Omar El Akkad attended the Giller ceremony. This version has been corrected.