Imperfect People: A Book List by Caroline Adderson

Caroline Adderson's headshot

Caroline Adderson is the author of two internationally published novels (A History of Forgetting, Sitting Practice), two collections of short stories (Bad Imaginings, Pleased To Meet You), and three books for young readers (Very Serious Children, I, Bruno, Bruno For Real).Her work has received numerous prize nominations including the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist, the Governor General's Literary Award, the Rogers' Trust Fiction Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. A two-time Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and three-time CBC Literary Award winner, Caroline was also the recipient of the 2006 Marian Engel Award for mid-career achievement. Her latest novel is The Sky is Falling.

I am partial to imperfect characters, the kind of people we sidestep in real life because they make us uncomfortable, because we are afraid of them, because we are afraid of being them. How much easier to turn and face them when they are between the covers of a book! This embracing of the imperfect exemplifies, I think, what the act of reading (and for that matter writing) actually is -- an act of compassion: com + pati = to suffer with. Through literature we gain privileged access to the private thoughts and feelings of a character and so become them and suffer with them. Oddly, only as I was pulling books off my shelf to compile this list, did it occurred to me that my second novel, Sitting Practice, had an imperfect character -- Iliana, a paraplegic. I had forgotten about her because she no longer seemed imperfect to me; in fact, she is the least incomplete person in the book. My entire attitude toward disability changed by the time I finished writing the novel so that now, when I tell people it is about Buddhism and spinal cord injury, I have to smile as they instinctively recoil. For how else do they plan to read the book but sitting down?

Book Cover We So Seldom Look on Love

1. Barbara Gowdy, We So Seldom Look On Love: Gowdy established herself as the Can Lit Queen of imperfect people with the 1992 publication of this bizarre, unsurpassable story collection. Mute, blind, brain-damaged, birthmarked, transsexual, hydrocephaletic, Siamese-twinned -- they are all here, seen through the author’s unflinching eye and lightened by her black wit. “…[I]t was all right being deformed if deformity had to exist for there to be such perfection,” one of them thinks. These are generous, unself-pitying people we would otherwise not know but for this brave and heart-filled author.

Book Cover The Story of My Face

2. Kathy Page, The Story of My Face: Page is such a skillful writer. It takes a long time before Natalie Baron’s imperfection becomes evident to us. She arrives in Finland to research the founder of an extreme religious sect, one she herself got tangled up in as a child to dire consequences. Since the story is recounted in first person, we don’t see Natalie but we do sense the unease of the other characters. “Normally, when meeting someone for the first time, I make things easier for them by naming, right at the start, what stands between us.” This story is that naming, the scar that mars Natalie Baron’s face and how, ultimately, it brought her a far more beautiful life than she was destined for.

Book Cover Radiance

3. Shaena Lambert, Radiance: “Imagine a girl to whom you can attach any stereotype,” Lambert writes of her imperfect character, Keiko Kitigawa, who is 18 years old in 1952 when she arrives in the United States for reconstructive surgery. Keiko is a hibakusha, an atom-bomb survivor, brought by a well-meaning but politically motivated group, the Hiroshima Project. In exchange for removing the ghastly imprint on the left side of Keiko’s face and the pendulous keloid everyone seems fascinated by --“a strange adornment” -- Keiko has agreed to a speak against the bomb. But Keiko, the “blasted girl,” is decidedly not a submissive Japanese maiden, or a victim. She’s more of a fox child whose delightful cunning surprises everyone, including the reader.

Book Cover Biggest Modern Woman

4. Susan Swan, The Biggest Modern Woman of the World: Very tall author Susan Swan is the probable descendant of the true life Nova Scotian “professional giantess” Anna Swan. In the former’s hands, the latter’s life story is told with great humour and dignity. Anna Swan, 8 feet tall, was taken up by P.T. Barnum, “toured the world, entertained royalty and married for love,” but suffered greatly for her unusual stature due to the peculiarities of her body and trials of living in a world of “normals”. “As society becomes standardized, it grows more difficult for giants and dwarves to fit in,” Anna Swan tells us in the first chapter with startling prescience for a novel first published in 1983 before any of us had ever heard of “globalization”. Substitute any other imperfect person for “giants and dwarves”, or, for that matter, substitute your own unique self.

Book Cover Carolan's Farewell

5. Charles Foran, Carolan’s Farewell: In 1737 the legendary Irish harper and composer, Terence Carolan, finishes a ten-day pilgrimage. Everyone expects his demise, but there is still plenty of life left in the blind man as he rides home across a famine-stricken Ireland accompanied by his companion, Owen Connor, his faithful collocutor, his eyes. Carolan “has no say in his fate, and to this day others choose almost all his paths on his behalf. His meat needs to be cut and his glass refilled. He must be instructed where to piss.” Foran brilliantly describes Carolan’s world without a visual reference. A blind man with a hilarious case of logorrhea, on a horse, in constant danger of falling off, perceiving the passing countryside through his nose and ears – it’s quite a ride.

Book Cover Crackpot

6. Adele Wiseman, Crackpot: Obesity is last legitimate target for cruelty. Few schoolyards will tolerate a racist or homophobic taunt, but the fat kid still largely defends himself. Thus Crackpot remains essential reading almost forty years after it was published. Its heroine, Hoda, is not immune to the world’s cruelty but her exuberant, forgiving nature helps her bear it. Also, she has plenty of clients to love her in the back room in the tiny house she shares with her blind, oblivious (or is he?) father. She is the cracked pot of the title, overflowing, flawed, imperfect. The novel’s epigraph is from a Kabbalistic creation legend: “He stored the Divine Light in a Vessel, but the Vessel, unable to contain the Holy Radiance, burst, and its shards permeated with sparks of the Divine, scattered throughout the Universe.” It is the imperfect people who let the light into the world.

August 14, 2011
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