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Jury members Camilla Gibb, Roy MacGregor and Beverley McLachlin share their thoughts on the finalists for the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize.

The books on this year's RBC Taylor Prize shortlist offer an intimate look at life through five lenses – a childhood boat trip, a career in music, a bicycle journey along the infamous Silk Road, a family coping with parental decline, and a traumatic upbringing.

“At its heart, every story is about the value of an individual life and how it speaks to something universal," says Camilla Gibb, award-winning author and a juror for the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize. “There's a universality to every one of these books."

Gibb, alongside fellow jurors Roy MacGregor, a veteran journalist and author, and Beverley McLachlin, former Chief Justice of Canada, were tasked with selecting the finalists from a diverse cross-section of more than 100 non-fiction entrants.

Combing through the submissions was a challenge in and of itself, admits Gibb. “If you have a curious mind, you want to go down every one of these rabbit holes, so you spend a lot of time underground."

Each title on the shortlist pushes beyond the jury's criteria of excellence in the craft of writing, the use of the English language and quality of thought, an elegance of style and subtlety of perception.

“The language in all of those books on the final list, it soars, it's just beautiful," says MacGregor. “We just want Canada to celebrate the five books we ended up with because they speak to the human spirit in a certain way (we want) to be spoken to … they inspire."

The finalists join an esteemed list of celebrated Canadian storytellers including Tanya Talaga who won last year for Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City, says Vijay Parmar, president of RBC PH&N Investment Counsel, and a trustee of the RBC Taylor Prize.

“Since its inception, the RBC Taylor Prize has recognized excellence in Canadian non-fiction literature, celebrated achievements of gifted writers, inspired emerging new voices, and reminded us how a strong narrative has the power to change the way we think about the world around us."

The jury will reveal their pick for this year's RBC Taylor Prize during a gala luncheon in Toronto on Monday, March 4th. Each of the shortlisted writers will receive $5,000 and the winner is awarded a further $25,000.

noreen tyaylor announcing taylor prize 2019 finalists

Noreen Taylor presents the shortlist for the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize

The RBC Taylor Prize shortlist

Just Let Me Look at You: On Fatherhood, by Bill Gaston (Victoria), published by Hamish Hamilton Canada, follows Gaston's solo, 80-mile boat journey across the Salish Sea in search of memories.

“He's heading back to the bittersweet place," writes the jury, "Where he spent time as a child living aboard a boat with his father, learning to fish and learning to be wary of the fluctuations in his father's moods when he drank. This is a quiet, meditative and tender-hearted exploration of childhood injury and its legacy across generations."

Jan in 35 Pieces: A Memoir in Music, by Ian Hampton (Vancouver), published by Porcupine's Quill, is the cellist's “lyrical reflection" on 35 pieces of music and the conductors, performers, and composers who shaped his career.

“By turns reflective and humorous, this beautifully paced book chronicles the trials and triumphs of a life devoted to music and defined by the people he worked with and loved," writes the jury.

Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road, by Kate Harris (Atlin, B.C.), published by Knopf Canada, traces Harris' bicycle journey along Marco Polo's Silk Road.

“Vivid descriptions of the places and people she meets inspire deep and eclectic reflections on the nature of the world, wilderness, and the struggle of humans to define and limit them. This is a book that changes how one thinks about the world and the human compulsion to define it," writes the jury.

All Things Consoled: A Daughter's Memoir, by Elizabeth Hay (Ottawa), published by McClelland & Stewart, is an examination of her family's dynamics. Hay's father is “a proud and ambitious school teacher possessed of a terrifying temper and moods of melancholy," and her mother, the peacekeeper reconciling herself to life through her art.

“As she cares for her parents in their final days, Elizabeth — the difficult daughter —describes the truth of who they are and what they did. Tender, witty and brutally honest, the book tears open the cloak of shared secrecy to bare the dynamics of a family - the fears, sibling rivalries, joys, disappointments and grievances that have lain unacknowledged through the decades," writes the jury.

Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age, by Darrel J. McLeod (Sooke, B.C.), published by Douglas & MacIntyre, unpackages McLeod's life lived amidst violence and family trauma.

“McLeod's writing is lyrical and offers a powerful examination of contemporary issues, from sexual self-identification to the scars of residential school to the contemporary search for reconciliation. “Mamaskatch" means “shared dream" in Cree, and while there are unavoidable nightmares along the journey, there are also dreams of hope, at times of exquisite beauty and renewed pride," writes the jury.

Searching for a sense of self, collectively

If anything underpins the five finalists, says MacGregor, it's a search for a sense of self: Hay's life through the lens of her upbringing, McLeod's journey through “pure hell" only to come out of it knowing who he is, Hampton's examination of music and his place in it, Gaston coming to terms with his father, and Harris' look at herself through the people she meets along her journey.

“They are all about self-discovery, and revelation," he says.

And that's what good non-fiction is, says McLachlin, more than just a glimpse into another's mind, it's a collection of experiences and values. She says reading through the entrants was almost like, “Getting to know a couple hundred people and finding out what makes them tick and what their adventures have been."

“I think anyone writing from their personal experience and being honest about it is putting themselves in a vulnerable position, they are sharing things that may be very intimate and important," she says. “They're (saying) 'this is my life' – and they're holding it out there for everyone to see."

“The insights and the backgrounds strike one as mirroring values we identify as Canadian, be they a respect for the other—a gentle and accommodating approach to the world and to difference," she says, adding that these books are going to provoke you to consider your past and think about the future.