If you like quiet, smart, character-driven fiction, I have one word for you: Canada.
“Quiet” is a damning word in US publishing these days. Increasingly, it seems, a novel needs a hook — a startling premise, a plot popping with melodramatic events, an artificially uplifting ending. But maybe that is not what you happen to look for as a reader. (What’s the hook in “Middlemarch”?) And while I wouldn’t claim that there are no thoughtful subtle novels being published in the United States, or that every Canadian novelist is George Eliot, I have gotten enormous pleasure browsing in Canadian bookstores over the years, discovering novels propelled by sharp, honest observation of the dilemmas and nuances of ordinary lives.
It’s always tricky to generalize about a country and its culture. But on a recent visit to Toronto, I noticed that pedestrians still wait for the “walk” signal before crossing the street, even when there is no oncoming traffic. And an argument that erupted on a crowded bus ended with one angry passenger telling the other, “You are very rude!” to which the huffy reply was, “You’re the one who is rude” — a surreally polite version of something which, in almost any other city I can imagine, would have been an exchange of obscenities. There is something of this ethos in Canadian fiction: a reticence not about what is shown — love, sexual desire and frustration, extreme loneliness, the trauma of wartime, the experience of immigration — but about how it is expressed, both among the characters and in the prose itself. Canadian fiction tends to achieve its effects through precision and restraint, rather than through literary pyrotechnics. Even a wildly imaginative work such as Robertson Davies’s “Deptford Trilogy” sets its dreamlike Jungian carnival of fantastic coincidences against a background of bleak provincial life — a great example of a uniquely Canadian genre that could be called Self-Deprecating Magical Realism.
There are Canadian writers whose work is already widely known in the United States and abroad, including Davies, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, and Carol Shields. But here’s a list of some other Canadian novels that are worth reading.
“Clara Callan” by Richard B. Wright: A deeply sympathetic, involving novel set during the 1930s and told through the correspondence between two sisters — the one who leaves their pokey Ontario town to become a radio actress in New York, and the one who stays behind.
“Consolation” by Michael
Redhill: A contemporary narrative of loss and urban archaeology interspersed with the story of an unlikely trio — an apothecary, a photographer, and a destitute Englishwoman — who come together in 1850s Toronto. A patient novel whose central love story is all the more stirring for its extreme understatement.
“Late Nights on Air” by Elizabeth Hay: A tiny radio station in the small northern town of Yellowknife, the people who wash up there, and the impact — sometimes devastating — they have on one another.
“Stanley Park” by Timothy Taylor: Bizarre comedy and social commentary — a literate page-turner about a hot young Vancouver chef and the corporate magnate who wants to take over his restaurant and his soul.
“A Good House” by Bonnie Burnard: A family portrait spanning four decades, and a gorgeous reminder that a novel can be powerful without being hugely eventful.
“Galore,” by Michael Crummey: This gritty, magical, moving tale sweeps through 200 years in an isolated Newfoundland fishing village where nothing is quite what it seems, beginning with the whale that washes up on the beach with the body of a man inside.
“The Stone Angel” by Margaret Laurence: The first of a quintet of brilliant novels written in the 1960s and early ’70s, set in Manawaka, a fictional town based on Laurence’s Manitoba birthplace. Laurence’s books are exhilarating for their emotional frankness and strong, contrary heroines — in this case Hagar Shipley, who is remembering her past and rebelling against the enforced dependency of old age. The whole series is terrific, but if I had to pick another favorite it would be “The Diviners,” a portrait of the artist as a ferocious, awkward, passionate woman, and one of the best books ever about how someone becomes a writer.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is joanwickersham.com.