Five Canadian Novels I’ve Read

I follow a couple of Canadian bloggers whose recommendations often hit the spot for me – Naomi at Consumed by Ink, in particular. Frustratingly, many of the books she reviews aren’t Cover imagepublished here in the UK. I know I can get them via Amazon but I’ve sworn off them until they treat their staff like human beings. I do have hopes of visiting Canada one of these days and it’s clear I’ll need at least one extra suitcase for the trip home. In the meantime, here are five favourite Canadian novels I’ve managed to get my hands on, two with links to full reviews.

Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air is set in the summer of 1975. Harry has returned from his Toronto television job with his tail between his legs and falls for the seductive voice of Dido who occupies the late-night slot. Dido is the object of a great deal of quiet desire at Yellowknife’s radio station staffed by a collection of misfits and blow-ins. Nothing much happens in the novel aside from a summer canoe trip with four of the characters but it draws you in with its wistful tone and gorgeous descriptions of the Canadian wilderness. Hay acquaints her readers intimately with her cast of mildly eccentric characters so that by the end of her novel you’ve come to care about them deeply. It’s an absolute gem, recognised as such by the Giller judges who awarded it their prize in 2007.

The Republic of Love is my favourite of the late lamented Carol Shield’s novels. It’s a thoroughly satisfying love story in which Fay – a folklorist with a particular interest in mermaids and impossibly high romantic expectations based on her ideas about her parents’ relationship – and Tom – a talk-show host with what can only be charitably described as a chequered romantic past – try to find a way to be together. The schlock potential here is high but Shields is far too sharp an observer to fall in to that trap with the result that the book is both wry and touching. Not a prize winner, but an absolute delight.Cover image

Margaret Atwood is arguably the best known of Canada’s contemporary novelists. The Heart Goes Last may not be the obvious choice from her prodigious list of novels but it’s the one that brought me back to her work after a long break. In the nearish future a homeless couple signs up to a project in which they alternate a month in prison with a month in a comfortable house then one of them becomes obsessed by their counterparts and embroiled in a plan that will blow the lid off the scheme’s increasingly sinister goings on. Atwood is the consummate storyteller, slinging well-aimed barbs as she reels her readers into this tale of suburban utopia gone horribly wrong. What took me by surprise was how funny it is – almost to the point of being a caper – but lest you think this is dystopia-lite, Atwood’s novel has some very serious points to make.

Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life is about two very different women bound together by their love of music in a friendship that endures through love lost and won; marriage, arranged and otherwise; and raising children in the most difficult circumstances. Mahsa is the child of an Afghan woman and an American man who wins a scholarship to study music in Montreal. Katherine, the child of a white mother and a Chinese father, carves out a place for herself, playing piano in a jazz band, pursuing music, love and family with a passionate determination. When these two meet, an indissoluble bond is formed. Music is the breath of life to Katherine and Mahsa, running through their story like a constant yet ever-changing refrain. There’s so much to admire about this novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing.

Cover imageWith great wit and humanity, Rohinton Mistry’ A Fine Balance explores the effects of the state of emergency on the lives of ordinary people in 1970s India through a cast of vividly drawn characters. Determinedly clinging to her independence, recently widowed Dina sets up as a seamstress, recruiting two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, and taking in Maneck, a student, as a lodger. What begins out of economic necessity eventually becomes an arrangement between friends, each with a demon to defeat: Dina must conquer her fear of losing her rent-controlled flat to help Ishvar and Om who in turn must cope with the fallout from stepping outside the caste system. Even the privileged Maneck is troubled by his father’s apparent rejection. When Ishvar and Om are caught up in the government’s cruelly administered policies their unlikely family is first threatened, then torn apart.

Any books by Canadian authors you’d like to recommend?

39 thoughts on “Five Canadian Novels I’ve Read

  1. Maria Papadima

    I used to read Carol Shields years ago (about 20 years ago, more or less, or more…) and thanks for reminding me! I will go back to her work to re-read this, I remember her writing being beautiful.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      It’s lovely, isn’t it. I’ve enjoyed all her novels but this one seemed underrated to me – at least here in the UK. I hope you enjoy revisiting her work.

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    Meanwhile, the Canadians are frustrated with how expensive it is to order any books from the UK… Yes, I have a bit of a weak spot for Canada and its authors: I’m planning to dedicate September or October to Canadian authors.

    Reply
  3. heavenali

    A Fine Balance is one of my favourite novels of all time, read pre-blog. It’s an incredible novel and I learnt so much about Indian politics and society in the 1970s from it. I was underwhelmed by The Heart Goes Last, I loved the first 100 or so pages, then it got too silly for me. I’ve only read one Carol Shields, and have meant to read more by her at some point.

    Reply
  4. Annabel (AnnaBookBel)

    Some to look up there. Obviously I’d recommend Patrick DeWitt – but I know you already enjoy him and Denis Theriault. The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon was wonderful (young Alex the Great and Aristotle). I’ve been meaning to read the Giller winner from a few years ago Us Conductors about Louis Theremin for ages too

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Definitely deWitt and I enjoyed Theriault’s Postman books, too. I read Us, Conductors in the same year as Tracy Farr’s The Life and Loves of Tracy Farr both of which feature theremins!

      Reply
  5. Café Society

    I’m another great fan of ‘A Fine Balance’: one of the great novels of all time in my opinion. I’m also a lover of Carol Shields’ novels. ‘The Stone Diaries’ was the first novel I bought in hard back because I couldn’t wait for the paperback edition. I had forgotten about Elizabeth Hay. There was much made of her novel first novel, ‘A Student of Weather’, but I haven’t seen much about her since. Have you read Ann-Marie MacDonald’s ‘The Way the Crow Flies’? Not always dealing with the nicest of subjects but definitely worth looking out.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I enjoyed A Student of Weather but Late Nights on Air is my favourite Hay. Yes, I liked The Way the Crow Flies and also Fall on Your Knees which you’ve reminded me I read many years ago.

      Reply
  6. Rebecca Foster

    I’ve enjoyed all the Hay and Shields books I’ve read. My book club is thinking of reading Unless later in the year, which will be new to me. A Fine Balance is sat on my shelf, patiently waiting to be read. I enjoyed Family Matters so much that I don’t know what’s stopping me (the small print and 600+ pages, I suppose).

    Reply
  7. Victoria Blake

    I absolutely loved Fall on Your Knees. I was working as a bookseller at the time and it was published with a truly dreadful cover and I remember a colleague saying ‘Just read it and you’ll love it.’ And she was right!

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      As a fellow ex-bookseller, I share your pain. Lousy or misleading book jackets do writers, readers and booksellers a disservice. I bet you and your colleague overcame it with your recommendations, though!

      Reply
  8. Passage à l'Est!

    I had no idea Rohinton Mistry is Canadian, but now that I’ve looked into my copy of Such a long journey (read and very much enjoyed) and A fine balance (waiting for its turn to come since 2013) I see he’s been living there since before I was born… I’m sadly quite ignorant when it comes to Canadian literature (including from Quebec) but I have read/listened to a few Alice Munro short stories and have always meant to read more. And I loved the one book I read by Anne Michaels but I don’t think I need to tell you about her. Amazingly, my local library has the Elizabeth Hay so it’s now on my list for after the summer break, thanks for the recommendation.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Ah, it sounds like you remembered my trumpeting of Fugitive Pieces a while back! I so pleased you’ve added Late Nights on Air to your list. I hope you love it, too, if you get to it.

      Reply
  9. whatcathyreadnext

    I read Elizabeth Hay’s His Whole Life but wasn’t blown away by it although the descriptions of Canada were terrific. Two other Canadian authors whose books I’ve enjoyed that spring to mind are Donna Morrissey (The Fortunate Brother) and Roxanne Bouchard (We Were the Salt of the Sea).

    Reply
  10. Davida Chazan

    Michael Ondaatje is technically Canadian these days (after Sri Lanka and the UK), and I’ve read all his books and reviewed all but “The English Patient”. Ruth Ozeki also lives in Canada, I believe but I’ve only read her “A Take for the Time Being” and her novella “The Face”. By the way, Atwood’s modern retelling of Shakespeare’s the Tempest – “Hag-Seed” is marvelous!

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Ah, I’ve always avoided those retellings but it sounds as if I should make an exception for Atwood, and I’d not come across The Face so thanks for that.

      Reply
      1. Davida Chazan

        True, retellings can be… er… boring, but this one isn’t! You can look at my review on my blog. By the way Anne Tyler did a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew and it fell completely flat. There are others who did this for Shakespeare’s 400th, but those are the only two I read.

        Reply
  11. Naomi

    What an unexpected delight to come across this on vacation! Five fabulous Canadian books (although, I have to admit that The Republic of Love is one I haven’t read yet…. But I will!). I also like seeing everyone else’s recommendations. I wanted to make my own, but then realized that you can just find them all on my blog. 🙂
    Thanks for the shout-out, Susan!

    Reply
  12. Kath

    I enjoyed Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life so much; she balanced the two women’s stories so well and wrote beautifully about the importance of music in their lives.

    I recommend Annabel by Kathleen Winter, if you haven’t already read it. It’s a book that’s stayed with me, and one I feel sure I’ll re-read.

    Reply

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