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Madeleine Thien, Canada’s newest literary star, a favourite to win prestigious Man Booker Prize

Madeleine Thien is Canada’s newest literary star — making a splash in Canada and abroad with her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing — nabbing a high-profile trio of nominations for the Man Booker Prize, the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Awards.

The three are among the world’s most prestigious — and lucrative — literary honours: the Man Booker carries a prize of £50,000 (approx $80,000 Cdn), the Giller $100,000 and the Governor General’s Literary Award $25,000. Thien’s also up for the Quebec Writers’ Federation Literary Award. Winners typically see a huge jump in book sales.

Thien will learn the outcome of two prizes Tuesday, with the Governor General’s winners announced in Canada at 6 a.m. ET and the Man Booker gala taking place in London that evening.

Madeleine Thien's book Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is Thien’s third novel. (CBC)

For what it’s worth, the Vancouver-born author’s acclaimed third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is currently the Booker favourite, according to well-known betting agency Ladbrokes.

Some literary critics also favour her for a Booker win.

“Madeleine Thien is very high in the bookie’s odds and has been very high all along,” Claire Armitstead, books editor at the Guardian and Observer, told CBC News.

“I think she’s leading 2 to 1, which is quite surprising because this is a very big book. It’s a testing book. It’s about a big hard period of history. And I’m absolutely delighted.”

‘This book, though it’s very specifically set in China, does what great literature does, which is to make the specific universal.’
– Claire Armitstead, The Guardian

“Personally, I would love her to win,” said Armitstead.

“She’s a real artist: the sort of writer who invests five years of her life in finding out about something in a really big way.” 

For Thien, who will attend the black-tie Booker gala dinner at London’s Guildhall — which will be broadcast on the BBC — the attention has been a bit overwhelming. 

“It’s hard to take it all in. It’s been such an incredible time for the book,” she told CBC News Friday, ahead of an appearance at the Vancouver Writers Festival.

“I’m really happy for the novel. I’m overjoyed that it’s finding its way to so many readers,” she said.

“I can’t put words to it. Maybe in six months I’ll feel all the complex emotions that, at the moment, are bouncing off me. I feel like I need to go through this and rise to the occasion and do my very best to celebrate everything that’s happened. I feel so lucky.”

Madeleine Thien: Do Not Say We Have Nothing0:55

Set during China’s Cultural Revolution

Do Not Say We Have Nothing opens in Vancouver in 1990, as a expatriate Chinese family takes in a young woman who has fled China in the wake of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

But much of the novel is set during the time of the Cultural Revolution and follows the lives of several musicians whose lives are thrown into tumult from the changes in their country.

Madeleine Thien

‘I’m really happy for the novel. I’m overjoyed that it’s finding its way to so many readers,’ Thien said. (Babak Salari/Penguin/Random House)

Thien says her novel may have resonated so widely with readers and prize juries because it deals with themes of displacement and refugees fleeing political strife — issues that are on people’s minds due to the Syrian crisis.

“It harkens back to the cyclical nature of these catastrophes that have forced people to flee their homes or have made it so they cannot live in the ways they wish to live: in freedom, with dignity, in the places they were born and the places they would prefer to stay,” she said.

“It’s a catastrophic recurring event that we seem to keep creating.”   

Claire Armitstead, books editor of The Guardian

If Madeleine Thien wins the Man Booker Prize, ‘it will definitely give her a place in world literature which I think she should have already,’ said Claire Armitstead, books editor of The Guardian newspaper in London. (CBC)

British book critic Armitstead agrees with Thien’s assessment.

“This book, though it’s very specifically set in China, does what great literature does, which is to make the specific universal.”

“So what it is about is the struggles of the individual to make their mark on history, to find themselves a place in history, and we are in a period of revolutions, of mass migrations of people where it is becoming harder and harder for individuals to actually have an existence and this is at base what this book is about. And that’s a story for everyone.” 

Unfortunately, much of the book’s subject matter is still considered too sensitive in China to allow her novel to be published there, because the government controls which books may be published, said Thien.

“But what has been extraordinary is there have been Chinese publishers who are interested in publishing,” she said.

“We all hope at some point in the near future it will be possible.”

If Thien does bring home just a few of the literary honours for which she is nominated, it could boost her chances even there.

CBC-TV will broadcast the Scotiabank Giller Prize Gala on Nov. 7 at 9 p.m. ET (10 pm AT, 10:30 pm Nfld)