Katrina Onstad: Books with a Sense of Place
When you say “sense of place” and “CanLit” in the same breath, everyone scurries over to Mordecai Richler and Montreal’s St. Urbain Street, or to the Bloor St. viaduct in Toronto that cuts through In the Skin of a Lion. I bow down before both (and my initials mean I get to rub up against Ondaatje on the shelves), but they aren’t the ones that moved me most. I love a book in which setting anchors the story with atmosphere and meaning, sometimes becoming character itself, or lending characters their motivations. But a personal connection to setting is something special between the reader and the writer: “The author knows the place I live better than I do” or “Now that place is changed to me forever.”
I appreciate many great novels where the setting isn’t even known, but these aren’t those; these are some books that, if the location changed, the story would be utterly different—to me, anyway.
Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland: No one has dissected Vancouver more than Coupland, granting sympathy and hopefulness to that frustrating glass city—my hometown. For single, aging Liz Dunn, Vancouver is the appropriate site of sadness—oh, those flimsy townhouses—and a little redemption as the Hale-Bopp comet streaks across the Vancouver sky.
As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross: Whenever I cross the prairies (my dad is from Saskatchewan), I think of Horizon, Ross’s cruel Everytown. With its dusty main street, false-fronted stores and pious citizenry, the town actually seems to breathe on the page. The narrator, the unnamed wife of the tormented minister, is trapped in a creaking house that can’t keep the wind out, and we all feel the Depression-era cold.
The Antagonist by Lynn Coady: Unlike her earlier books, anchored in the east, Coady’s latest is Cape Breton Vague, and I like it for that. Without specifics, Coady uses vernacular and familiar scenes—like the small town bullying in the parking lot of the pseudo-Dairy Queen—that let you know you’re somewhere total and self-contained. If not exactly named, this Cape Breton town is the place that Rank, the troubled one-time goon, needs to flee to survive.
The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood: This is the Toronto of the '60s, a provincial town of rooming houses and shifting morals. It’s a Toronto that still lurks in the shadows if you live there. When I first moved to Toronto, I’d think of young Marian MacAlpin’s disturbing journey toward herself every time I walked near the university. This is Atwood at her weirdest and funniest.
The Essex County Trilogy by Jeff Lemire: Three spare graphic novels set in a version of Essex County, Ontario. Loosely interconnected (but equally good separately), these books feel as intimate as memoir, but are as restrained as Lemire’s deceptively simple drawings. Brothers Lou and Vince Lebeuf, aging former hockey players, gaze from the page with haunted expressions caught in thin black lines, lost in the farmland of southwestern Ontario. The snow falls in fat, sad circles.
Nellcott is My Darling by Golda Fried: I have a soft spot for coming-of-age books and this one is set in a collegiate version of Montreal, where I did come of age. The bands, the bars, the stench of youthful mistakes form a universal urban experience, but Fried gets at the unearthliness of Anglophone displacement, too.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: Writing about India must be incredibly hard. I’ve spent time there, and it’s an overwhelming place—too big to wrangle with words. But A Fine Balance gets into the corners of Mumbai, flushes out its smells and textures, and uses the city to amplify the story’s unflinchingly big emotions.
Poems by Elizabeth Bishop: The great poet Elizabeth Bishop described herself as “3/4 Canadian.” After her father died and her mother was struck by madness, Bishop lived with her grandmother in Great Village, Nova Scotia, later moving back to Massachusetts, where she was born. But the Maritimes are the wellspring for some of her best poems. Nova Scotia is where my husband’s family is from, and is now in my kids’ blood (and mine). Bishop knows the colours best: “The thin mist follows/ the white mutations of its dream; /an ancient chill is rippling the dark brooks” (from “Cape Breton”).
Katrina Onstad’s second novel, Everybody Has Everything, came out in Canada in May, 2012 and will be released in the US in 2013. Her first novel, How Happy to Be, was met with critical acclaim in 2006.