André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs, a thoughtful, big-hearted novel that uses man’s best friend to explore what it means to be human, is the winner of this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, it was announced Tuesday.

The prize, which is worth $100,000, plus potentially more in book sales, is generally regarded as Canada’s pre-eminent literary award.

Mr. Alexis, who also won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize last week, has now earned two of the country’s three major fiction awards.

“I didn’t think that I was going to win it,” he said backstage after accepting the award. “I never think that I’m going to win anything. My own feeling is that if you get too absorbed in thinking about winning and losing, then you get disappointed if you lose and you get too weird if you win. I like to keep myself on an even keel.”

Subtitled “An Apologue” – a fable usually featuring animal protagonists – the novel opens in a Toronto tavern, where two Greek gods are engaged in a “desultory conversation about the nature of humanity.” A wager is proposed, with Apollo arguing an animal “would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence,” while Hermes maintains otherwise; to settle the bet, they spring a pack of dogs from a nearby veterinary clinic. The novel follows the dogs over the course of their lives as they grapple with their new-found language and wisdom.

The 58-year-old Mr. Alexis, who was born in Trinidad, raised in Ottawa and now lives in Toronto, was a finalist for the Giller Prize in 1998 – his debut novel, Childhood, ultimately lost to Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman. His other work includes plays (Lambton Kent), a book for young readers (Ingrid and the Wolf) and a collection of essays and short fiction (Beauty and Sadness). Fifteen Dogs is the second volume in Mr. Alexis’s “quincrux” of novels, as he calls the project, the first of which, Pastoral, was published last year. The third instalment, The Hidden Keys, will be released in 2016.

“As a writer, you can’t allow things like this to hold you back,” said Alexis. “I’ve got another novel that I’m one and a half drafts through that needs my entire devoted attention. To stop and think about how wonderful it is that I’ve won the Giller Prize for Fifteen Dogs would be death to The Hidden Keys. So, as a writer, you have to maintain that even keel to keep going forward.”

It was also a historic night for his publisher, Coach House Books. The venerable Toronto press, which has published the likes of Michael Ondaatje, Gwendolyn MacEwen and Ann-Marie MacDonald, celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. (Mr. Alexis’s first book, Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa, was published by the press in 1994.) Incredibly, this marked the first time a Coach House author was shortlisted for the Giller Prize.

That might have something to do with this year’s jury, which, for the first time in the prize’s 22-year-history, was expanded to five people: Canadian authors Cecil Foster, Alison Pick and former Giller Prize finalist Alexander MacLeod, as well as British novelist Helen Oyeyemi and Irish writer John Boyne, who served as jury chair. After considering 168 submissions from publishers across Canada, the jury selected one of the most surprising, challenging and bold shortlists in Giller Prize history – an unapologetically literary slate of books, any one of which would have been a deserving winner.

The other finalists were Rachel Cusk for Outline; Vancouver’s Anakana Schofield for her avant-garde novel Martin John; Quebec writer Samuel Archibald for his debut collection of short fiction, Arvida, translated from the French by Donald Winkler; and Montreal’s Heather O’Neill, the first author shortlisted for the Giller in consecutive years, for her short-story collectionDaydreams of Angels. They each receive $10,000. (In the case of Arvida, Mr. Archibald receives $7,000, while Mr. Winkler takes home the rest.)

The ceremony, which was held at Toronto’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, was hosted by comedian Rick Mercer and featured appearances by Buffy Sainte-Marie and Measha Brueggergosman, among others.

The Giller Prize was founded by businessman Jack Rabinovitch in honour of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller.

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015 10:04PM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015 9:18AM EST