Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award: Michelle Butler Hallet, David Huebert, and Sharon Robart-Johnson

The Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award celebrates the very best of Atlantic Canadian Fiction. I try to read as many of the nominated books as I can. You can find more information about this on my Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Reading List page.

Like the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction, all three nominees for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award–the most prestigious of the Atlantic Book Awards–are published by independent publishers. Always something to celebrate!

Constant Nobody by Michelle Butler Hallet (Goose Lane Editions)

Constant Nobody takes you completely and utterly into the grim and tense world of 1937 Russia–and Stalin’s Secret Police–during the Great Purge. Like her previous novel–This Marlowe–this novel is impeccably researched and steeped in the rich details of the past. I found it slow to get into, but once I was into it, the pages started flying and I needed to know.

The characters are flawed and complex. Kostya, a member of the secret police especially so. The duties he is required to carry out as part of his job are often traumatic and against his natural temperament. Is he villain or victim? What about the man who saved him from life on the streets and possible death? Arkady has a long history of serving in the secret police and thinks nothing of throwing parties involving drugged women, yet he shows great love and affection for his adopted son. In their line of work, there’s corruption and fear every day of their lives – they have to watch their step and be careful what they do and say – they know exactly what will happen to them if they don’t. As Chris Benjamin says in “Atlantic Literature in the World: Our books define and expand us“, “Butler Hallett’s talent for creating sympathy for villains is profound.”

Genrikh Yagoda, their former chief, languished in a cell beneath their feet, and his absence pressed them all. As Yagoda’s imprisonment wore on, and time and expectation hauled him towards a show trial and brutal execution, other officers drank themselves to oblivion and choked on vomit, crashed their cars into walls and trees, jumped from windows, shot themselves in the head. Each officer understood the escalating brutality inflicted on prisoners because each officer practised it. If Yagoda could fall from grace, then so might any officer, policeman to prisoner at any moment, any moment. Dread, and truth.

As a British spy, Temerity West lives up to her name. We meet her first during the Spanish Civil War where she’s standing in as a nurse at a medical clinic. This is where she and Kostya first meet, neither sure of who they’re dealing with. But they share a love of Russian stories and, after spending a short time together–during which Kostya is treated for gonorrhea and crabs–he spares Temerity’s life. Terrifies her. But spares her. They meet again the next year in Russia, where Kostya, once again, does what he can to save her. She doesn’t feel saved – she feels trapped.

She’d paced the flat for much of the night in Kostya’s absence, checking the lock every few minutes, just in case, because maybe this time, this time, it would release. When she did sleep, dreams thieved any rest, dreams of exile and flight. She’d struggled to read a map in the last dream, a map on which borders writhed and legends blurred.

The relationship between Kostya and Temerity is complicated. Is it love? Is it survival? Is it just desperation to have someone – anyone – to connect with? Confusing to both of them–and harder as things get more and more dire–but a weak light in the darkness of their lives. What will happen to them in what seems to be an impossible situation?

Rich, grim, weighty, and totally worth all 440 pages.

As Ian Colford says in his review at The Miramichi Reader, “The sheer artistry that has gone into shaping and writing this story is nothing short of spectacular.

From Marcie McCauley at The Temz Review: “Hers are not the kind of historical novels that include maps and definitions, but simply scanning the text reveals a vocabulary that secures time and place: an isochronic map, cryptanalysis, patronymic, shrapnel, debridement craters, and a samovar. Matters of territory and conflict, loyalty and identity, European culture and custom—these are key to Basque country life in 1937, amidst the Spanish Civil War.

Another quotation I love from Benjamin’s article at Atlantic Books: “It’s a delight to see international influences on our literature. It is only through story, and especially the immersion of literature, that our imaginations can so fully occupy another time and place. In this way, literature connects us.” 

Chemical Valley by David Huebert (Biblioasis)

Chemical Valley does not shy away from urgent modern questions―the distribution of toxicity, environmental racism, the future of technology, the climate, and the human body―but it grounds these anxieties in vivid and often humorous intricacies of its characters’ lives.

Chemical Valley is also nominated for the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction, which I wrote about here.

Jude and Diana by Sharon Robart-Johnson (Fernwood Publishing)

The only mention of Jude in Nova Scotia’s official history is of her death. In 1801 a slave-owning family was brought to trial for her murder. Robart-Johnson pays tribute to archival glimpses of enslaved people by recreating the fullness of the sisters’ survival.

Jude and Diana is also nominated for the Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction. I wrote about Jude and Diana here.

All three of these books have a lot to offer and are very different from each other. I’m looking forward to finding out who comes out on top. You can keep tabs, as well, by visiting the Atlantic Book Awards website and/or by following on Twitter @AtlBookAwards.

15 thoughts on “Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award: Michelle Butler Hallet, David Huebert, and Sharon Robart-Johnson

  1. annelogan17 says:

    Yay for Indie presses! I’m surprised that the publicity blurb for Chemical Valley calls it humerous – the quotes you included in your last post about it sounded terrifying!!!

  2. wadholloway says:

    I wonder if we could do regional awards in Australia. East coast wouldn’t work, that’s nearly the whole population. Maybe Outback, which of course would have the opposite problem, no one lives there. Anyway, a very homogeneous people Australians, we don’t seem to have the regional identities you do (though Queenslanders are a bit odd).

    • Naomi says:

      That’s interesting! Maybe because Canada’s so spread out – the west coast is practically another world! But Australia is also big…

  3. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    You’ve inspired me to see if there’s a Southern (U.S.) literary award, and I found the Southern Book Prize, which is given to the best Southern books by the Southern Independent Bookstore Alliance. The 2022 winners look good!

    • Naomi says:

      Woohoo!! That sounds fun! It’s surprising the number of literary awards and events going on when you dig around. 🙂
      Now I’m curious if you have one for your State?

  4. Marcie McCauley says:

    Thanks, kindly, for linking to my review. I’m really impressed by the way MBH weaves research with creativity; her backlist has proven to be fascinating too! You know that I think Chemical Valley is eminently deserving, and of course I want to read Jude and Diana too (but that will have to be an ILL too).

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