Recently I had the pleasure of being one of the three judges of the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. I accepted the role when asked by my friend Stuart Woods, the editor of Quill & Quire, before the Amazon link became a major embarrassment. (Amazon is throwing its weight around, and if publishers don’t automatically agree with the new, worse terms they’re offered, their books are automatically de-listed – in their electronic form, at least – from all Amazon websites. That has happened to my book, and to all books published by ECW. There are other ways, of course, to get our books electronically, but doing business with bullies is not good.)
The judging process put me in touch with five fine books, by authors who were mostly new to me. In every single case I was glad to be introduced to the book, and enjoyed reading it. The judging process, expertly arranged by Stuart Woods, brought pleasant contact with Nathan Whitlock, whom I knew slightly and whose work I admired, and my old friend Kelly Duffin. I suspect that with the variety of opinions we brought to the (metaphorical) table we could have spent a week putting the five books in order, but after a full discussion it was clear that we all agreed on The Free World by David Bezmozgis as the winner.
The plot is simple. Three generations of a family of Latvian Jews escape to “the free world” of the title. In this case, that world is Rome, and the life that various refugee organizations offer to people in transit, while they choose their new home, and – after a tense time — are accepted by the officials of that country.
All of the family members adapt to their new life in different ways, including the grandfather who preferred the way things were back home. It’s a very sophisticated piece of fiction and is full of wry humour. (At one point, when an amorous young man suggests a horizontal tree branch as a solution to the lack of a private bedroom, the offended lady retorts, “What are we? Squirrels?” )
I recommend the book without reservation, and look forward to many more fine books coming from David Bezmozgis. But watch out, too, for more fine books from the other nominated authors.