I am a big fan of Canadian literature a.k.a CanLit. But it can sometimes be difficult to find people who share this passion. The two most common reasons I’ve found are 1) people don’t live in Canada and are therefore not exposed to it or 2) they assume it’s all about people in cabins up North trying to survive the elements while having some sort of personal revelation. And while those types of stories do exist (the CanLit premise generator was created for a reason) they are only one part of a larger literary culture. To me CanLit is a treasure trove — a wealth of perspectives, cultures, settings and opinions.
Earlier this year famed British author Julian Barnes, voiced his concerns about American authors being eligible for the Booker Prize. One of his reasons? “If you also include Americans–and get a couple of heavy hitters–then the unknown Canadian novelist hasn’t got a chance.” I’d like to thank Mr. Barnes for his concerns but would argue that it’s not needed. In fact despite the inclusion of American authors this year an “unknown Canadian novelist” did find her way onto the shortlist. Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing may not have won the Booker but it did receive great international acclaim in both America and overseas.
If one Canadian author isn’t enough though (and of course it isn’t) I’m here to help Julian Barnes out–and any other interested readers as well. I’ve compiled a list of 2016 CanLit titles I found particularly noteworthy this year. Whether these authors are “unknown” or not could be debated as that really depends on what circle of people you ask. But I did try to focus on titles from independent Canadian presses as those titles are less likely to have made their way across the border.
On the Shores of Darkness there is Light by Cordelia Strube (ECW Press)
A heartbreaking and humorous novel about an eleven-year-old girl named Harriet. She’s desperate to express herself through her art and forever misunderstood. As she dreams of running away she tries to survive her difficult parents (and I mean difficult), take care of her sick brother, and run errands for the seniors in her building. Her very existence is a fine balance and Strube holds nothing back – this book can take you from crying to laughing and back again in the turn of a page.
The Party Wall by Catherine Leroux, translated by Lazer Lederhendler (Biblioasis)
Originally published in French, the English translation of this collection was nominated for one of Canada’s big literary awards, the Giller Prize, but ultimately lost out to Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Each of these stories explores siblings who are joined together in different ways–such as non-identical twins separated at birth or a woman who absorbed her twin sister’s body in the womb and now has two sets of DNA. Some readers may find this collection a little strange but I think it’s worth it.
Becoming Lin by Tricia Dower (Caitlin Press)
Taking us back to 1965, Becoming Lin, tells the story of twenty-three-year-old Linda Wise. This book actually works as a companion story to Dower’s 2012 novel Stony River, in which a younger Linda Wise is sexually assaulted. But even if you haven’t read Stony River, Becoming Lin, is a fascinating look at a turbulent time for a young girl as she copes with her past assault in a time of social and political change.
Weekend by Jane Eaton Hamilton (Arsenal Pulp Press)
Ok, so this novel actually does take place in the Canadian wilderness (Ontario’s cottage country to be exact) and it does involve characters having some kind of personal revelation(s). What makes this book unique, however, is that those personal revelations are made by two queer/lesbian couples. This novel explores relationships, queer and trans identities, race, class, contemporary women’s issues, sex…this list goes on and on. At less than 300 pages it’s small but mighty.
Five Roses by Alice Zorn (Dundurn Press)
Moving from Ontario cottage country to the streets of Montreal we have Five Roses. I’ve seen Five Roses described as a “love song to Montreal” and that’s a pretty good description. The novel follows three characters that are all connected in some way to the Farine Five Roses sign in Pointe St-Charles, in Montreal. Through them the reader is exposed to the history and present day of the city, it’s multiculturalism, it’s communities and so much more.
The Island of Books by Dominique Fortier, translated by Rhonda Mullins (Coach House Books)
Coach House Books is one of my favourite Canadian publishers. They also print their own books and the quality is top notch. Beautiful covers, beautiful paper, the whole package. They’ve also published a number of amazing books over the years, including 2015’s Fifteen Dogs. This year one of their highlights is The Island of Books, a piece of historical fiction, originally published in French, which takes place in a monastery in fifteenth century Mont Saint-Michel (a.k.a the island off the coast of France that looks like Hogwarts).
Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety by Ann Y. K. Choi (Touchstone)
I’m breaking my rules a little here as this book is not from an independent publisher, but I just couldn’t leave it off the list. It’s an lovely coming-of-age story set in Toronto’s Korean neighbourhood in the 1980s. It’s told through the eyes of a young girl named Mary/Yu-Rhee, a daughter of immigrant parents who run the neighbourhood convenience store. It’s one book you may have a hard time putting down, as you just want to hear more of what Mary has to say.
Once in a Town Called Moth by Trilby Kent (Tundra Books)
Anna is not your average teenager. She grew up in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia for starters. But now her father and her have fled the colony and she doesn’t know why. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she’s now living in Toronto, a city unlike anything she’s ever experienced before. As she tries to find her way in this new place, she also finds herself asking questions like why did they run? And where did her mother go all those years before?
Involuntary Bliss by Devon Code (BookThug)
Last but not least we come to Involuntary Bliss. This unique and edgy novel centres on two young men in Montreal trying to rekindle their friendship. This novel is full of psychological turns and dark humour and is difficult to describe. If you want to read something one-of-a-kind there’s a very good chance this is the book for you.